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Abe: Flex Hours, Work Style Among Key Steps to Fight Virus

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Abe: Flex Hours, Work Style Among Key Steps to Fight Virus

The Japanese prime minister took aim at the country’s work culture amid concerns about further spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus.

Abe: Flex Hours, Work Style Among Key Steps to Fight Virus
Credit: AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tuesday that companies should allow employees to work from home and hospitals must expand their treatment capacity in order for Japan to control its virus outbreak.

“We are at an extremely important time in ending the spread of infection at an early stage,” Abe said at a meeting of a task force on the outbreak.

He said cases involving unknown transmission routes and small clusters of infections are occurring, and that slowing the pace of new infections is crucial for stopping the spread of the disease. With 10 new cases reported Tuesday, Japan now has 860, the third highest number behind China and South Korea.

Other basic measures announced Tuesday to fight the illness include urging people to wash their hands carefully, follow “cough etiquette” and avoid going out when feeling unwell. They also urge people with mild illnesses to go to family doctors instead of hospitals with specialized virus-control facilities which are treating many seriously ill patients.

In a country known for long working hours blamed for “karoshi,” or death from overwork, the virus scare may help change Japan’s corporate culture and allow people to work more flexible hours.

“In order to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus, commuting in shifts and teleworking need to be widely exercised across society,” said Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshi Kajiyama. “We call on the corporate world to actively implement (the measures).”

Flexible working hours are mainly aimed at reducing the risk of becoming infected on packed trains, but companies are also encouraged to “create an environment where employees can ask for sick leave when they are feeling unwell,” Kajiyama said. He said the trade ministry began flexible hours on Tuesday and is promoting teleworking.

Some companies are seizing the opportunity for change.

GumGum Japan, an artificial intelligence company that already allowed flexible hours and remote working, now is telling all of its employees to work from home. It also banned unessential business trips and hopes to communicate with business partners via phone and video conferences.

“We just need to adapt ourselves to the new way of working, in which coming to the office is not necessary when it’s not suitable,” said managing director Naokazu Wakaguri.

NEC, which plans to promote teleworking during this year’s Tokyo Olympics, also began allowing all of its 60,000 employees to work remotely to avoid the virus.

Other companies were prompted by necessity. Dentsu Inc., the world’s largest advertising agency, said the thousands of people working at its headquarters in Tokyo will work remotely beginning Wednesday after an employee tested positive for the virus this week.

Japan’s case total includes 691 people infected on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, docked in Yokohama near Tokyo. Abe’s government has been widely criticized after the quarantine of the ship was seen to have failed to stop the virus from spreading. Four former passengers on the ship have died and more than a dozen people who were evacuated by their home countries later tested positive for the virus. Six government officials involved in the quarantine effort also became sick.

While the ship quarantine was capturing global attention, the virus was spreading across Japan as many tourists visited the country during the Lunar New Year holiday, experts said. At least 160 of Japan’s cases are not related to the ship and have occurred even in remote areas such as Hokkaido, Wakayama and Kumamoto.

Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told reporters Tuesday that the biggest concern is that small clusters of patients in number of locations will expand.

By Mari Yamaguchi and Haruka Nuga for the Associated Press.