COVID-19 and Beyond: A Perspective from Japan and South Africa

Updated: Sep 9

Insights from the JSAS Webinar, July 4th, 2020

Rangarirai Gavin Muchetu, Doshisha University

The COVID-19 global pandemic continues to affect the global society by freezing local and international mobility and disrupting work and the functioning of the economy (intensifying poverty and inequality). As the virus marches on, it is crucial to take stock of challenges and responses and to reflect on new directions for global development post-COVID-19. The Japan Society for Afrasian Studies (JSAS), with the Centre for Japanese Studies (CJS) at the University of Pretoria, hosted an online Zoom webinar. The discussions were on ongoing socio-economic initiatives put in place by Japan (Asia) and South Africa (Africa) to mitigate the impacts of the novel coronavirus respiratory disease (SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19). The event was also supported by the Graduate School of International Development (Nagoya University), and the Institute for Future Initiatives (University of Tokyo). Attended by 110 people, the event had a robust panel consisting of Christian Otchia (Nagoya University), Scarlett Cornelissen (University of Stellenbosch), Ayako Takemi (University of Tokyo), Sithembile Mbete (University of Pretoria), and Masaki Inaba (Africa-Japan Forum). Rangarirai Gavin Muchetu (Doshisha University) moderated the discussion.

Since attaining global pandemic status on March 11, 2020, the ongoing pandemic has infected 16,412,815 and killed 652,039 people worldwide (Worldometer, July 27, 2020). The pattern of infections across the globe has been difficult to predict and to rationalize. Japan had 39,382 cases (0.24% of total global infections) while SA had 445,433 cases accounting for 2.71% of the global cases (Worldometer, July 27, 2020). However, the small number of cases in Japan is partly due to the government's initial reluctance to implement PCR testing.

This webinar shed light on different responses done by Japanese actors to mitigate the spread of the disease, and compare them to those by South Africans. From these two perspectives, this exercise provided insights on state policy, socio-cultural, multi-lateral responses and identified research areas that would enhance international cooperation against such pandemics. The webinar did not specifically focus on comparing the two countries, but it sought to explain the trajectory taken by Japan and how these could inform responses elsewhere.

The discussions elaborated on the temporal spread of the virus from China to the rest of the world and the different measures taken by respective countries. In general, world governments utilised a combination of less drastic measures, such as the promotion of hygiene, wearing of masks, and social safety nets; and more drastic measures such as restricting the unnecessary movement of people (lockdowns) and tests. The main aim was to stop the virus and ameliorate its pernicious effect on the global economy. The pandemic has revealed global political economy issues (weak international cooperation) undermining the effectiveness of global cooperation against the virus.

After recording its first case on February 14 (imported from Europe), experts predicted devastating impacts of COVID-19 on developing countries especially in Africa with poor health care structures and capricious administrations. While Japan had 29,382 cases which accounted for 0.75% of all cases in Asia, South Africa that recorded its first case on March 5 has over 445,433 cases (52.4% of African cases) (Worldometer, July 27, 2020). Tests for the coronavirus is ongoing, SA has done approximately 2.63 million tests (ranked 14 globally) while Japan has done only 697 thousand tests and is not even in the top 30 (Statistica, July 27, 2020). To avoid a financial crisis like in 2008, Japan established a US$300 billion economic package while SA had a US$26 billion recovery package.

Although no single mitigation response can explain Japan’s relative success so far, the webinar speakers highlighted the importance of an extremely acquiescent society, cultured to a high level of hygiene, and use of face masks. Japan seems to have won some battles so far, but there was some confusion in its initial domestic responses demonstrated by its limited evidence-based governance systems (accountability, transparency, and participation). Speakers lamented the weak global governance mechanisms despite the level of globalization and interconnectedness. The recent rise in China-USA tensions undermines the capability of multilateral organizations, which remain the best channels for international cooperation.

The webinar speakers from SA emphasized the need to view the pandemic as a systematic shock that requires systematic antidotes. In doing this, local, bilateral, regional, and global synergies can be established to foster the rapid development of the vaccine and eventually smoothen the distribution of the vaccine. Thus, Japan-South Africa (Africa) relations could be improved through the reformation of TICAD towards a more Afro-centered forum. Currently, SA (most of Africa) was not in the front line in terms of developing a vaccine, hence will have no say in the eventual distribution of the vaccine.

COVID-19 has revealed the depth of the divide between the poor and the rich as the lockdowns rendered informal sector livelihoods highly strained as the state struggled to balance public health with economic imperatives. The webinar highlighted that, just as in Japan, the relative success in SA in the initial stages can be attributed to societal cooperation. As the lockdowns progressed, the poor majority felt the pain of poverty more than of COVID-19, making decision making at the government level difficult. While the state has acquired adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) in SA, governance failures (poor planning, bad governance, and corruption) were hindering the distribution of PPE and food relief to everyone who needs it.

The rise in Japanese CSOs has helped not only the Japanese government but also the governments in developing countries. Therefore, CSOs will be important in consolidating global governance systems and cooperation in light of the continued Japanese commitment to fund some of the African COVID-19 responses. The webinar concluded that local and international CSOs can go a long way in holding governments accountable and reducing corruption. More Africa-Japan-Forum type of CSO linkages should be fostered henceforth. While no resolution is currently available to end this crisis, attempts should pay particular attention to: i) the facts and evidence of the national status in the crisis, ii) the effects of the development in the health sector on SA’s foreign relations in the African region as well as the rest of the world, iii) how the crisis had affected Japanese-South African relationships. Some major recommendations also came in the form of: i) multilateralism matters ii) economic development and continental trade should be prioritized to improve the resilience of the people, and iii) there is need for building the capacity of the state to enable itself to deal with such crises in the future. Going forward, researches should focus more on the nature of joint/collaborative projects between South Africa (Africa) and Japan (Asia) beyond the current COVID-19 crisis. The projects can be related to academic research or something more practical, in the fields of human security, TICAD, intellectual property rights, civil sector, and local livelihoods.


Statistica. (2020, July 24). COVID-19 tests by country. Number of Coronavirus (COVID-19) Tests Performed in the Most Impacted Countries Worldwide as of July 24. https://www.statista.com/statistics/1028731/covid19-tests-select-countries-worldwide/

Worldometer. (2020, July 27). Coronavirus Cases. Worldometer. https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.01.23.20018549V2

Figure 1: Global spread of the disease as of 27 July 2020

Source: Worldometer (2020)

© 2019 Japan Society for Afrasian Studies