Restoring Business and Safeguarding Okinawa: Provocative Thoughts

Okinawa has not had a single new case of SARS-CoV-2 infection since April 30. No patient has tested positive for COVID-19 for more than six weeks now, and it is safe for us to assume that Okinawans have been living their lives virus free.

We are privileged that Japan’s social conventions, like wearing masks, maintaining social distance, and adopting the measures recommended by government, have resulted in a comparatively mild outcome.

Okinawa recorded just 142 proven cases. But, as I have described in previous articles, the Okinawan economy has taken a drastic hit. Service sector jobs, and the tourism industry especially, suffered dramatic job losses and serious reduction of GDP. Hotels and restaurants were closed or only partially open for a long stretch of the season, visitor attractions on our islands stood empty, taxis and other transportation businesses like car rental and coach hire have suffered significantly.

The challenge we are facing in the months, if not years, ahead is to find a balance between defending Okinawa against SARS-CoV-2 and protecting jobs and prosperity.

This presents an immediate dilemma: in order to revitalize the travel industry we have to welcome visitors, knowing full well that a number will probably bring the virus with them.

The recent decision to allow cross prefecture travel in Japan risks a second wave of virus infection, with SARS-CoV-2 imported to Okinawa once more. Consequently, we have to do all we can to ensure that travelers are either virus free or diagnosed and quickly isolated.

The tools to do this are already available. We should use them.

I propose that everyone coming to Okinawa is checked using so-called PCR testing. This can detect even minute amounts of virus. Ideally, testing kits will be purchased by travelers themselves, for around Y3,000-Y4,000, on a plane or ship, or at the airport or port. It will be collected at the port (air-port) immediately upon arrival. Last year around 7,000 national travelers arrived in Okinawa on average each day. If we assume that only half that number will come this year (which is optimistic, given the pandemic crisis) then Okinawa will require daily testing capacity for 3,500 visitors. I am convinced that hospitals and clinics in the Prefecture, as well as OIST, can reach that capacity.

All travelers would strictly observe social distancing and wear masks for their first day here. During this time, they will be informed about the outcome of the test, via messaging or through a smartphone app. The overwhelming majority will be negative. The few who test positive can then be isolated immediately.

The Japanese government now recommends the use of a smartphone app (COCOA) which allows you to be notified when you may have contacted someone infected with SARS-CoV-2.

We should encourage everyone to use this app. It has been developed with care to ensure that individual privacy is not undermined and personal data is properly protected. This technology helps with rapid tracing of people who have been in the vicinity of an infected person. Anyone in close contact will be notified. Using the COCOA app means that we can all be warned as fast as possible, isolated, and retested.

Combining PCR testing with a contact tracing app will provide Okinawans with the highest possible level of reassurance and safety, while at the same time offering a way to boost visitor numbers once more and breathe life back into the industry.

The costs will have to be borne by the travelers – but any impact on visitor numbers will be much less risky to Okinawa’s economy and job market than a damaging second wave of infection, and return to restrictions or lockdown.

By Dr. Peter Gruss, President/CEO, Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST)

The Japanese translation of this article was published on June 28, 2020 in the Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper under the title "<新型コロナOISTによる洞察>9 県民の生活守るには ツール活用し景気回復".