TOKYO – With the emergence of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus at the end of last week, countries around the world have rushed to close their borders to travelers from southern Africa, even in the absence of information scientists indicating whether such measures were necessary or likely to be effective in stopping the spread of the virus.
Japan has gone further than most other countries so far, announcing on Monday that the world’s third-largest economy would be closed to travelers from all over.
It’s a familiar tactic in Japan. The country has banned tourists since the start of the pandemic, even as most of the rest of the world has resumed travel. And it had only opened tentatively this month to business travelers and students, despite recording the highest vaccination rate among the world’s richest democracies and after seeing its number of coronavirus cases plummet. 99% since August.
Today, as doors slam once again, Japan provides a sobering case study of the human and economic costs of these closed borders. During Japan’s many months of isolation, thousands of life plans have been put on hold, leaving couples, students, university researchers and workers in limbo.
Ayano Hirose hasn’t been able to see her fiance in person for the past 19 months since leaving Japan for his native Indonesia, just two weeks after his parents blessed their wedding plans.
As Japan has remained closed to most foreigners, Ms. Hirose and her fiance, Dery Nanda Prayoga, saw no clear path to a reunion. Indonesia had started to allow some visitors, but the logistical challenges were significant. The couple therefore contented themselves with several daily video calls. When they run out of things to talk about, they play billiards on Facebook Messenger or watch Japanese variety shows together online.
“We don’t want to suffer at the thought of not being able to meet in the near future,” said Ms. Hirose, 21, who wrote letters to the Foreign and Justice Ministries asking for an exemption to allow Mr. Dery coming to Japan. “So we are going to think positively and continue to have hope.”
While the United States, Britain, and most of Europe reopened over the summer and fall to vaccinated travelers, Japan and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region n ‘have opened their borders a crack, even after achieving some of the highest vaccination rates in the world. Now, with the emergence of the Omicron variant, Japan, along with Australia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Indonesia, and South Korea, are retreating rapidly.
China, which has banned international tourists since the start of the pandemic, continues to issue visas for professional or diplomatic purposes so far, although limited flight options and long quarantines have deterred travelers. Taiwan has banned nearly all non-residents from entering since the pandemic began. Australia, which only recently started allowing citizens and visa holders to travel abroad, said on Monday it would delay easing its border restrictions. Sri Lanka, Singapore, South Korea, Indonesia and Thailand have all banned travelers from southern Africa, where the variant was first reported.
Although the real threat of the new variant is not yet clear, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters on Monday that he decided to revoke the relaxations for business travelers and international students in order to “avoid the worst of cases”.
The government’s decision to shut down again reflects its desire to preserve its successes in the fight against the virus and to avoid the kind of strain on the healthcare system it has endured over the summer during an outbreak. of the Delta variant.
Japan only registers around 150 cases of coronavirus per day, and before the emergence of the Omicron variant, business leaders had called for a more aggressive reopening.
“When the pandemic started, Japan did what most countries in the world did – we thought we needed proper border controls,” said Yoshihisa Masaki, communications director at Keidanren, the largest lobbying group. commercial from Japan, in an interview earlier this month.
But as cases dwindled, he said, continued strict border restrictions threatened to hamper economic progress. “It will be as if Japan was left behind in the Edo period,” said Masaki, referring to Japan’s isolationist era between the 17th and mid-19th centuries.
Japan had already fallen behind countries in Southeast Asia, where economies depend on income from tourism and where governments have taken the lead to reopen. Thailand recently reopened to tourists from 63 countries and Cambodia has just started welcoming visitors vaccinated with minimal restrictions. Other countries, such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia, allowed tourists from certain countries to arrive in restricted areas.
Richest Asian countries like Japan have resisted pressure to reopen. With the exception of its decision to host the Summer Olympics, Japan has been cautious throughout the pandemic. It was early to close its borders and close schools. It only rolled out its vaccination campaign after conducting its own clinical trials. And eating and drinking hours remained restricted in many prefectures until September.
Foreign companies could not bring in executives or other employees to replace those returning home or to another international assignment, said Michael Mroczek, a lawyer in Tokyo and president of the European Business Council.
In a statement released on Monday, the council said business travelers or new employees should be allowed entry provided they adhere to strict testing and quarantine measures.
“Confidence must be placed in Japan’s success on the vaccination front,” the council said. “And Japan and its people are now firmly in a position to reap the economic rewards.”
Business leaders have said they want science to guide future decisions. “Those of us who live and work in Japan appreciate that government policies have so far significantly limited the impact of the pandemic here,” said Christopher LaFleur, former US Ambassador to Malaysia and House Special Advisor. of American trade in Japan.
But, he said, “I think we really need to look to science over the next few days” to see if a complete border closure is warranted.
The students, too, were left in limbo. It is estimated that 140,000 or more were accepted into universities or language schools in Japan and waited months to enter the country to begin their studies.
Carla Dittmer, 19, had hoped to move from Hanstedt, a town south of Hamburg, Germany, to Japan over the summer to study Japanese. Instead, she woke up every morning at 1 a.m. to join an online language course in Tokyo.
“I feel anxious and, frankly, desperate at times because I don’t know when I might enter Japan and whether I will be able to complete my studies,” Ms. Dittmer said. “I can understand the need for caution, but I hope Japan resolves this problem with immigration precautions such as testing and quarantine rather than its wall policy.”
Border closures have economically flattened many regions and industries that depend on foreign tourism.
When Japan announced its reopening to business travelers and international students earlier this month, Tatsumasa Sakai, 70, a fifth-generation owner of a store that sells ukiyo-e, or woodcuts, at Asakusa, a popular tourist destination in Tokyo, hoped the move was a first step towards reopening.
“As the number of cases decreased, I thought we could have more tourists and Asakusa could come back to life,” he said. “I guess this time the government is just taking precautionary measures, but it’s still very disappointing.”
Mr. Dery and Ms. Hirose also face a long wait. Mr Dery, who met Ms Hirose while they both worked at an auto parts manufacturer, returned to Indonesia in April 2020 after his Japanese work visa expired. Three months before he left, he proposed to Ms. Hirose during an outing to the DisneySea theme park near Tokyo.
Ms Hirose had booked a flight to Jakarta for that May so the couple could get married, but by then the borders were closed in Indonesia.
“Our marriage plan fell apart,” Mr. Dery, 26, said by phone from Jakarta. “There is no precision on the duration of the pandemic. “
As recently as last week, Mr. Dery obtained a passport and was hoping to fly to Japan in February or March.
After hearing about the new Japanese border closure, he said he was not surprised. “I was hopeful,” he said. “But suddenly the border is about to close. “
“I don’t know what else to do,” he added. “This pandemic seems endless. “
Reporting was provided by Hisako Ueno and Makiko Inoue in Tokyo; Dera Menra Sijabat in Jakarta, Indonesia; Richard C. Paddock in Bangkok; John yoon in Seoul; Raymond Zhong in Taipei, Taiwan; and Yan Zhuang in Sydney, Australia.