Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo ordered the closure of all elementary, middle and high schools on Thursday until the beginning of the country’s spring holidays in late March in a bid to contain the outbreak of the coronavirus.
The measure, which will cost the Japanese economy billions of dollars, will impact 12.8 million students at nearly 35,000 schools nationwide, according to the country’s education ministry.
The drastic measure comes amid rapidly growing concern about the spread of the virus across Japan and other parts of Asia, as the number of untraceable cases of the virus continues to rise. Japan now has around 900 cases, including more than 700 from a quarantined cruise ship. At least eight deaths have been confirmed.
“Efforts have been made to prevent the spread of infection among children in each region, and these one or two weeks will be an extremely critical period,” Abe told a meeting of key Cabinet ministers on Thursday. “The government attaches the top priority to the health and safety of children, among others.”
“We need to place top priority on the health and safety of our children, and take measures to stem the risk of many children and teachers becoming infected through gathering for long hours every day,” he told media after the meeting, adding that the world is entering “a critical phase” in their response to the epidemic.
Abe’s announcement came hours after local authorities in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, announced the closure of the majority of the 1,600 elementary and junior high schools due to the high number of cases in the area, where the many of the infected are schoolchildren.
“We will make our best efforts to prevent further spread of infection to protect the lives and health of the people in Hokkaido,” Hokkaido Governor Naomichi Suzuki said during a local assembly session.
The Japanese car manufacturer Mitsubishi has told its entire workforce of 3,800 people to work from home. Other companies including Shiseido, Dentsu, and Panasonic have also mandated remote working at home for their staff in central Tokyo, although many other companies do not have the necessary infrastructure allowing their staff to work remotely.
Such moves follow escalating measures by countries across the world to avoid a major outbreak, amid a rapidly rising number of cases around the world from Europe to the Middle East. On Thursday, the government of Saudi Arabia took the unprecedented step of suspending all foreign pilgrimages to the country five months before the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
“The kingdom’s government has decided to [suspend] entry to the kingdom for the purpose of umrah and visit to the prophet’s mosque temporarily,” the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement, explaining that tourist visas would be denied “for those coming from countries in which the spread of the new coronavirus is a danger. They also urged Saudi citizens not to travel to places where the disease was proliferating.
The coronavirus, which originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan in central Hubei province, has so far infected around 82,500 people, the majority of whom are located in China. The country has consequently been brought to a standstill, with people being forced to stay home and avoid all unnecessary physical contact.