Japan’s COVID-deaths are at an all-time high. What’s age got to do with it?
In January, Japan logged a whopping 10,124 COVID-19 deaths, the highest ever in the country since the beginning of the pandemic. Experts state that the growing number of elderly people, who have lower immunity, is driving the fatality count up
It once boasted of having one of the lowest COVID-19 mortality rates. However, the last months of 2022 and the new year has seen Japan recording high number of coronavirus deaths.
In January, Japan logged a total of 10,124 COVID-19 deaths, the first time the monthly figure exceeded 10,000. In December 2022, more than 7,600, people died due to the virus, the highest monthly total at that time. Records show that the number of people dying from COVID over the last three months in Japan is nearly 16 times higher than the same period in 2021.
And there are fears that the fatality numbers will only rise, as Japan gears up to downgrade its medical classification for COVID-19 and drop its recommendation to wear mask indoors from 8 May.
So, what’s behind the rise in COVID-19 deaths? We examine the situation.
Japan’s eighth COVID-19 wave
The Asian nation is in the grips of its eighth COVID-19 wave and facing a surge of new daily cases, which have spread at a record breaking speed. On 28 January, the government data showed that around 54,800 new infections were reported nationwide, while the health ministry said there are 533 severe cases.
As of today, the total number of cases in Japan since the outbreak has logged in at 32,633,741 whereas the country has seen a total of 68,796 deaths, as per data collated by Worldometers.info.
The highly transmissible mutating Omicron variant is to blame for the spread of the disease in the country. Officials said that the BA.5 — which fuelled Japan’s record-setting seventh wave — is still the most dominant coronavirus strain in the capital, accounting for 54.1 per cent of all sequenced cases. This strain has been described by the University of California, Davis, as “the most easily spread strain to date” and one that is “able to evade immunity from COVID infection and vaccination”.
Also read: First Kraken, now Orthrus: What’s this highly transmissible COVID variant that US, China are tracking?
Cause for rising COVID deaths
Medical experts believe that a combination of factors is the reason for Japan’s rising COVID-19 deaths. First and foremost is the high number of elderly people in the country. Japan continues to gray — it has the highest senior population ratio in the world, with 29.1 per cent of its people over the age of 65.
According to experts, most of the latest COVID-19 fatalities are elderly people with underlying medical conditions. A Telegraph report stated that roughly 90 per cent of deaths in the last month were among those older than 70.
Norio Ohmagari, head of the disease control and prevention center at National Center for Global Health and Medicine, and an adviser to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, in a Bloomberg report said, “Japan is a super-ageing society, which means the proportion of people with a greater mortality risk is high. In the long run, it’s possible that Japan will be among the countries with high mortality rates.”
Dr Kazuhiro Tateda, president of Japan’s Association of Infectious Diseases, was quoted as telling The Telegraph that the highly infectious B5 omicron variant got into long-term care facilities for the elderly, making them vulnerable. “These people are less able to withstand the virus, especially if they are in their 80s or 90s, and it is very likely that these people are going to die,” Dr Tateda said.
Epidemiologist Kenji Shibuya, a director at the Foundation for Tokyo Policy Research, explained to BBC that the elderly population at old-age facilities were also not getting treated on time, due to which the COVID-related death toll was rising.
Another reason the COVID death rates are high is that the number of infected people is very high. The explosion of COVID cases in Japan can be attributed to the opening up of the country — in October, it had resumed all international travel — and also due to the relaxation of COVID protocols.
As Prof Kenji Shibuya, chair of Global Health Policy at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research, said: “The death figure gets larger if there are many cases.”
Also, as the cases rise, the number of patients in hospitals are rising owing to which there’s a lack of access to medical care. Simply put, an increasing number of patients in hospitals is clogging up the medical system, leaving the aged and vulnerable without access to proper healthcare.
Prof Yoko Tsukamoto, an infection control expert at the Health Sciences University of Hokkaido, said to The Telegraph, “Because the hospitals were effectively overwhelmed, most (elderly) had to stay in the care homes where they lived.”
Apart from the ageing population, the sluggish vaccination rate of omicron boosters could be a cause for the high number of COVID-19 deaths. So far, 80.4 per cent and 68 per cent of the population have received the first two doses and a third booster shot, respectively. And only 51.2 million people have received their Omicron booster.
Speaking to BBC, Yasuharu Tokuda, a physician at the Health and Global Policy Institute, said that Japan’s natural immunity is also low, which in turn is causing more deaths.
What next for Japan
Experts differ on the COVID situation in Japan. While some believe that as Japan opens up and resumes normalcy, the cases will stabilise and future rates of infection and death will be lower. However, others argue that as Japan’s medical system struggles with the rising cases and lack of proper medicines, the cases and deaths will only rise further in the months to come.
In the meantime, Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida announced that the nation would downgrade its classification of the virus to that of a less serious disease on 8 May, revising its measures against coronavirus such as relaxing guidance that people wear masks in public indoor places.
“We will take further steps towards ‘life with corona’ and make steady progress on returning to normality in homes, schools, workplaces, neighbourhoods and all facets of life,” said Kishida.
The change also means that from 8 May — after Japan’s Golden Week holiday period — COVID-19 patients and their close contacts will no longer have to isolate.
With inputs from agencies
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