A passenger wearing a protective face mask, following an outbreak of the coronavirus, gets off from a tram in Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan, on February 25. Image Credit: Reuters

Tokyo: Angry Japanese parents joined bewildered teachers and businesses on Friday in a rush to find new ways to live and work for a month after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s shock call for all schools to close in a bid to stop coronavirus spreading.

In another drastic move, the northern island of Hokkaido, which has seen the largest number of cases in Japan, late on Friday declared a state of emergency. Its population of about 5 million people, including residents of Sapporo city, were told to refrain from venturing outside their homes over the weekend.

Abe’s unprecedented move on Thursday to ask local authorities to shut schools means students will be out from Monday at least until the new academic year starts in early April.

The abrupt step drew scathing criticism, with health officials left scratching their heads and analysts saying the plan was politically motivated and made little sense. Local authorities also criticised the move and at least one prefecture and several cities rejected the request.

“I’m going to have to babysit my grandkids every other day,” business owner Mieko Hamada, 56, said on her way to their house in central Tokyo.

“My daughter works and can’t look after them, and their babysitter also refused. It’s utter chaos,” she said, adding that while she had her own business to run she had no choice but to ask subordinates to cover for her.

Willingness to soften call

Under intense questioning in parliament, Abe appeared to signal a willingness to soften the call, saying it was merely the government’s “basic thinking” and that schools and local authorities should “make their decisions flexibly.” He pledged to take policy steps as needed to prevent the outbreak from dealing a severe blow to Japan’s fragile economic recovery. Earlier in the week, the government urged the scrapping or curtailing of large gatherings, sports fixtures and cultural events, but pledged the 2020 summer Olympic Games would go ahead in Tokyo.

Infections in Japan have topped 200, with five deaths - including one on Friday of a man in his seventies. That excludes more than 700 cases and five more deaths from the quarantined cruise liner Diamond Princess, docked in Yokohama.

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A pedestrian wearing a protective mask walks past a drug store with empty shelves in Tokyo, Japan, on Friday. After a false rumor spread on social media that Japan imports pulp from China, the shelves of the Seiyu supermarket in the Tokyo district of Nishiogikubo were empty of toilet paper on Friday morning, with even paper towels gone. Image Credit: Bloomberg

While the virus has hit China hardest so far, causing nearly 80,000 infections and almost 2,800 deaths, its rapid spread globally in the past week has stoked fresh alarm.

Japan’s Sharp Corp will start making face masks next month, making it the first domestic manufacturer to cross industry borders amid a government campaign to meet high demand due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Nikkei business daily reported.

No shutdown in Shimane

As Abe prepared to hold a news conference on Saturday, surprise at the scale of his request reverberated around the country, with officials given few clues on how to implement it.

“We will continue to urge public services and private companies to make it easier for people to take time off,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference, without disclosing further details. Finance Minister Taro Aso said financial support for families was under review.

In western Japan, Shimane prefecture - which has had no coronavirus cases - simply said it had no intention of closing schools for now.

Hokkaido, which had already announced a closure of schools until March 4, provided a foretaste of the consequences. A hospital had to close doors to patients without reservations on Friday because a fifth of its nurses were unable to work with children out of school.

“We don’t know how this could be extended further,” an official at the facility, JA Hokkaido Koseiren Obihiro Kosei Hospital, said.

Workers to telecommute

As the coronavirus spreads, more companies said they would allow workers to telecommute. But a survey in the Nikkei, published on Friday and conducted before Abe’s announcement, showed only half of major firms were telling employees to do so.

Toyota Motor Corp and Honda Motor Co said they were still discussing how their factories would deal with school closures. Hitachi Ltd said it would let workers with children in school - or about 10,000 employees - work at home in March.

Zoos, aquariums and other leisure facilities also said they would close, with Tokyo Disneyland, DisneySea and Universal Studios Japan shut from Saturday through March 15.

Abe under fire

Abe has come under fire for what critics say is a lack of leadership and Japan’s seemingly cautious approach to testing for the virus, especially compared with South Korea, which was preparing to test more than 200,000 members of a church at the heart of a surge in its outbreak.

He also caught flak in parliament and social media on Friday after revelations an aide had held a buffet-style fund-raising party with about 200 attendees on February 26 - the same day the premier asked for sports and cultural events to be scaled down.

Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University’s Japan campus, said Abe’s move on schools was plainly political following surveys showing growing dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the outbreak.

“Suddenly, he sees the political consequences of being seen as missing in action,” Kingston said, noting his support had fallen to around 36% in a weekend poll. “He’s outsourcing responsibility to local governments and corporations.” Experts also questioned the efficacy of the move on schools.

“This is one example of a nationwide plan that has a slim chance of succeeding because the extent the coronavirus has spread differs across regions,” Kentaro Iwata, a professor specialising in infectious diseases at Kobe University Hospital, tweeted.