Kishida unveils plan to set up pandemic crisis control unit

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TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Wednesday announced plans to establish an infectious disease crisis management agency to better prepare for future pandemics.

Kishida, marking the end of the current parliamentary session and just weeks away from national elections on July 10, said Japan had succeeded in significantly slowing COVID-19 infections, but it was still too early to “lower our guards”. He said it was necessary to “walk the path back to ordinary life carefully” as Japan gradually resumes social and business activities as well as tourism.

Kishida, who faced low public expectations when he took office in October with unimpressive support rates of 40%, has steadily gained popularity to over 60%, buoyed by easing concerns over of infection and growing concern about the Ukrainian crisis.

His plan to create the infectious disease crisis management agency was in response to criticism that the government was unprepared and lacked a centralized command center to manage COVID-19, and was hampered by bureaucratic divisions in allocating hospital beds, setting up testing centers and rolling out vaccines.

Kishida said Japan’s two major infectious disease research institutes will be combined into one that will be overseen by the health ministry and serve as Japan’s version of the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He also reiterated his pledge to strengthen Japan’s diplomatic and security roles to contribute to peace at a time when the international order is seriously shaken by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Japan has followed the United States and Europe in sanctioning Russia and supporting Ukraine, and has also stepped up cooperation with NATO amid growing concern over China’s assertiveness in the Indo region. -peaceful and growing tensions around Taiwan, the self-governing island which Beijing claims as its own. Kishida said he would continue to urge China to peacefully resolve the Taiwan dispute through dialogue.

Kishida announced on Wednesday that he would attend a NATO summit later this month, becoming the first Japanese leader to do so.

South Korea’s new president Yoon Suk Yeol has also been invited and will attend the June 29-30 summit in Madrid, sparking speculation of a first face-to-face meeting on the sidelines between the two countries’ leaders, whose ties have been strained by disputes over the history of the war.

Kishida said nothing has been decided, although he acknowledged the importance of communication.

Kishida, in meetings with US President Joe Biden and other regional leaders last month in Tokyo, has already pledged a significant boost to Japan’s military capacity and budget.

He said protecting lives during the pandemic and restoring the economy had been his promise since taking office, and that “I will fulfill my responsibility as Prime Minister by delivering on my promises”.

Citing the pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine which have triggered a rise in global prices, Kishida said the world is “at a historic turning point” and next month’s election is a chance “for voters to carry a judgment on how Japan is meeting the challenges”.

Kishida also pledged to take steps to reduce energy and food price increases resulting from the Ukraine crisis.

The war has caused fossil fuel shortages for resource-scarce Japan, he said, vowing to maximize the development of renewable energy and speed up the restart of nuclear reactors, reversing the government’s earlier plan to phase out atomic energy. Restarting shut down reactors has been slow due to tougher safety standards after the Fukushima nuclear disaster and lingering anti-nuclear public sentiment.

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