Experts aim to understand Japan’s successes against coronavirus

Many countries around the world grapple with their worst coronavirus epidemics again. But one country, Japan, has very few COVID-19 infections. Observers are trying to understand why.

As late as the end of summer, the coronavirus situation in Japan was not good. COVID-19-related deaths were being reported every day. Hospitals were filled with coronavirus patients.

In September, Japan stepped up its vaccination campaign. The country has seen a sharp drop in the number of reported cases. The number of deaths has also fallen sharply.

Since then, the situation has continued to improve. In December, Japan reported on average less than one death from COVID-19 per day. This is an incredibly low figure for a country of 126 million people. No one knows exactly why Japan has been so successful.

There are several possible explanations. Almost 80 percent of the Japanese population is fully vaccinated. Almost everyone wears masks. And, even after the government lifted some restrictions this fall, people continued to socially distance themselves.

Some researchers have pointed out the low rates of obesity. Several recent studies have shown that COVID-19 is more serious in overweight people.

Cultural customs can also play a role. For example, Japanese people usually don’t kiss, embrace, or even shake hands when they meet.

Many Japanese are also silent in public places, notes Kentaro Iwata. He is an infectious disease specialist at the Japanese University of Kobe.

“Hiding and remaining silent in public places is very important [for fighting the virus]. Everyone knows it, but practicing it can be very difficult in some parts of the world, maybe due to cultural reasons, ”Iwata told VOA via email.

These reasons, however, do not explain why neighboring South Korea is facing its worst COVID-19 outbreak to date. South Korea shares many of the same cultural customs.

Another possible explanation is that Japan tests fewer people than other countries, Kenji Shibuya said. He is a epidemiologist and researcher at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research.

During the first half of December, Japan tested an average of 44,623 people per day, according to at government data. South Korea, whose population is less than half that of Japan, performed an average of 238,901 tests per day during the same period, according to official data.

Due to the lack of testing in Japan, it’s hard to believe the official case numbers represent reality, Shibuya told VOA in an email.

However, if the lack of testing was the reason, Japan would likely have seen an increase in hospitalizations or deaths.

Because there is no clear explanation, some researchers have tried to search for a so-called X factor. One study even suggested that many Japanese people share genetics characteristic linked to white blood cells which helps fight COVID-19. Others believe the version of the coronavirus spreading in Japan may have changed so much that it is on the way out.

But, the battle is not over, said Shibuya. He said he still expects the country to experience a winter wave of infections.

Japan has identified its first cases of community spread of the omicron version of the virus. Scientists have said that the omicron is spreading much faster than any previous version of the virus. Authorities say many of those infected with omicron in Japan have no recent history of overseas travel.

I am Ashley Thompson.

William Gallo reported this story from Seoul for VOA News. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.


Words in this story

epidemic – not. a sudden onset of illness

obesity -not. being overweight in an unhealthy way

embrace –V. put your arms around someone especially as a way to show love or friendship

practice –V. do something regularly as part of everyday life

due to –Adj. because of something

epidemiologist -not. a person who studies how the disease spreads and can be controlled

according to at shown, as shown somewhere

X factor -not. an unusual and noticeable quality that makes something stand out

characteristic -not. a quality, a notable difference

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