Japanese showed how 'democracy is crucial to beating Covid-19'

'Governments should trust people to behave in a rational manner': Prof Kosuke Shimizu

11 August 2020 - 18:14 By Zimasa Matiwane
Dean of research at the department of global studies at Ryukoku University in Japan, Prof Kozuke Shimizu.
Dean of research at the department of global studies at Ryukoku University in Japan, Prof Kozuke Shimizu.
Image: Supplied

The flow of accurate information from the government to citizens is critical in the fight against Covid-19 — particularly in societies where that information can be freely interrogated.

This is according to Prof Kosuke Shimizu, dean of research at the department of global studies at Ryukoku University in Japan.

Speaking on the sidelines of a lecture he delivered at the Centre for Japanese Studies at the University of Pretoria on Monday under the banner of “Pandemic in the era of democracy”,  Shimizu told TimesLIVE that the correlation between democracy, information flow and how that affects human behaviour during a pandemic cannot be understated.

“What is important is that people decide how to behave on the basis of the information provided by the government. I wouldn't say that people must just trust information without questioning it, however. Knowledge forms part of their understanding of how the virus affects them and their daily lives. Thus information forms the basis of their judgment,” he said.

Shimizu said hiding information — like mortality rates, virus hotspots or preventive measures — should be avoided at all costs.

“Governments should trust people to behave in a rational manner. Let them ask questions about any decision because once something is believable to citizens, then it is easier to trust that information and act accordingly. We need to understand every decision made by the government so they shouldn't just accept the information — they must reflect on it and interrogate it,” he said.

Drawing on lessons from his own country, Shimizu said in March not many people trusted the information from the Japanese government until the announcement of the cancellation of the Olympics.

“The problem in the first wave in Japan was precisely the matter of democracy and the flow of information, the number of test cases grew rapidly after the announcement of the cancellation of the Olympic Games, there is a rumour that the government did not provide accurate information because [of the fear of losing the] Olympic Games,” he said.

“More importantly, now we can see hotspots, then we can decide how we can behave. In East Asia people are used to being monitored. Technology has been used to trace suspected cases. I think that would be an appropriate next step in Japan’s fight against Covid-19.”

The cumulative total of Covid-19 infections in Japan surpassed 50,000 on Monday, compared to 559,858 in SA.

Shimizu credited the island nation's infection rate, active cases and low deaths without a lockdown to easy access to medical care under the national health insurance system, generally high quality medical care with hospitals supported by a national network of local public health centres, and the Japanese public’s high standard of hygiene, willingness to comply with government requests, and other cultural traits and lifestyle habits.

However, the country is still battling stigma, which Shimizu said the government was not doing enough to deal with.

“There is also a narrative that being infected is your fault. That is a terrible social problem — that once you test positive, criticism is on you,” he said.

“There is huge pressure on the people not to share that their family members have the virus because people will treat you differently. I don’t think Japan is dealing with a stigma in a proper manner.”