Work stoppages and no chatting at lunch: Japan Inc grapples with COVID

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TOKYO : Japanese companies are temporarily shutting offices or suspending production as they battle a record wave of COVID-19, disrupting businesses in a country that has until now weathered the pandemic better than most advanced economies. 

Automakers Toyota Motor Corp and Daihatsu Motor Co last week halted production line shifts because of employee infections. KFC Holdings Japan Ltd has had to shut some fast-food restaurants and move staff to fill gaps, while Japan Post Holdings Co has temporarily shut more than 200 mailing centres.

Japan's tally of COVID cases has surged past those of other countries as the full impact of the BA.4 and BA.5 variants dominating around the world hits home. Japan had more than 1.4 million new COVID cases over the past week, World Health Organization data showed.

Companies are scrambling to cope.

"We have divided the meal time into several time slots and have told workers to sit in one direction and not to talk at all," Subaru Corp CFO Katsuyuki Mizuma told reporters recently, describing how the automaker was trying to fend off infections and work stoppages.

Newly diagnosed COVID cases reached an all-time high for Japan of almost 250,000 on Wednesday. Hospitalisations and deaths are on the rise too but not as drastically as in previous waves because of the prevalence of vaccinations and booster shots.

Japan has had an enviable record in its response to COVID, avoiding the disruptive lockdowns and big death tolls that have accompanied the pandemic elsewhere.

The country of 125.8 million people has had more than 32,000 deaths, a fraction of the tolls in the United States and Britain, for example.

The latest outbreak will likely show whether it can maintain its flexible response aimed at "living with corona" and limiting the economic impact, particularly if the disruption now being felt gets worse of lasts for an extended period.

"There is still a shortage of semiconductors and the spread of the coronavirus is currently increasing," a Toyota spokesperson said last week.

"The future remains unpredictable."

Health authorities advise that those who test positive should quarantine for 10 days and their close contacts should isolate for at least five.

Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at the Dai-ichi Life Group, said production and retail would feel some pain as infected people and their close contacts stay at home.

"As infections and close contacts increase...

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