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TOKYO (Reuters) – Facing calls to declare a coronavirus state of emergency, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was flamed on social media on Thursday for instead offering people free cloth masks, pointing to growing frustration for some over his handling of the crisis.
Abe’s offer of masks – two per household – came the day after experts had warned Japan was on the brink of a medical crisis as cases rose around the nation, especially in Tokyo. The prime minister said on Wednesday Japan was “barely holding the line” in its battle against the virus.
The prime minister launched his offer to send cloth masks out while wearing one at a meeting of a government task force late on Wednesday. The masks will be sent to each of Japan’s more than 50 million households starting the week after next, with areas seeing a spike in cases getting priority.
“I am wearing one too, but these cloth masks are not disposable,” Abe said. “You can use soap to wash and re-use them, so this should be a good response to the sudden, huge demand for masks,” he said, noting domestic production of disposable masks would likely rise to 700 million in April from 600 million last month.
Twitter users were scathing, with the hashtag “#AbeMask” the top trend early on Thursday. “Is the Japanese government for real? This is a total waste of tax money,” wrote a user with the handle Usube.
Government ministers including Abe have said it was not yet time to declare a state of emergency that would provide authorities more legal clout to tell residents to stay home, close schools and take other steps, but would not allow penalties in most cases for those who defy the requests.
Though small compared with outbreaks in the United States, Europe and China, coronavirus infections are on the rise in Japan – with some 2,500 confirmed cases as of Thursday morning and 70 deaths – prompting growing expressions of concern among social media users.
Abe first appeared in public wearing a mask on Tuesday. He wore a loose cloth mask for parliamentary committee meetings the following day, sitting beside Finance Minister Taro Aso, who appeared visibly uncomfortable in a disposable paper mask and removed it to talk – in contravention of recommended procedures.
After news of the offer, some Twitter users posted doctored photographs of Abe wearing two masks, one over his mouth and another over his eyes. Others listed nations that are distributing subsidies to each household and said they’d rather just get money.
The offer of two masks per household also attracted scorn.
“If your family has more than two people, what are you supposed to do – fight over them?” posted user Yosuke.
The proposal also came in for caustic satire in yet another subtitled version of the global meme based on the German war film “Downfall”. The clip, which shows a distraught Adolf Hitler being told, “This is not an April Fool’s joke”, had 1 million views as of Thursday morning, and was retweeted by the Japanese Communist Party’s second-in-command, Akira Koike.
Additional reporting by Chang-Ran Kim; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell