US Military Anti-COVID Measures: In the End, We Have No Choice but To Lock Down the Bases

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken by telephone on Jan. 6 and requested that the U.S. military take stronger measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on its military bases in Japan. The U.S. forces’ headquarters in Japan announced on the same day that it would enact numerous such measures, such as requiring soldiers to wear masks off-base. These measures come exactly 16 days after Okinawa prefectural governor Denny Tamaki requested that soldiers be prohibited from leaving Camp Hansen and other U.S. bases on Dec. 12. Going by the repeated reports of drunk driving incidents involving American soldiers based at Camp Hansen, we cannot trust that these new measures will make much difference. In the end, it seems that there is no choice but to lock down the bases and prevent their staff from leaving.

A substantial omicron variant outbreak developed at Camp Hansen, and it was from this cluster that a Japanese worker became infected, becoming Okinawa’s first confirmed case of the new variant. The same story repeated itself at other bases in the prefecture. Tamaki has established the U.S. bases as the origin of the prefecture’s omicron outbreak and has criticized the continuing “leakage” from them. Tsukuba University visiting professor Yasuharu Tokuda has stated that, “the trigger of the current spread [of the omicron variant] is undoubtedly the American bases,” and furthermore, “that while there may be military reasons why the U.S. does not want to share information about the spread of COVID-19 among its troops with foreign countries, in this situation, there is no choice but to prohibit military staff from leaving their bases.”

The situation on U.S. bases outside the prefecture is no different. In Yamaguchi Prefecture, where stronger measures to prevent the spread of the virus were implemented at the same time as in Okinawa, Gov. Tsugumasa Muraoka pointed out that the spread of omicron in that prefecture originated from the U.S. military base at Iwakuni. Takaji Wakita, chairman of the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare’s COVID-19 specialist advisory group, has also expressed the opinion that the spread of omicron in Okinawa, Yamaguchi and Hiroshima is “probably somehow related” to the bases.

To prepare for future epidemics, too, it will be necessary to revise the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement to enable the application of the Quarantine Act to the U.S. military. The National Governors’ Association included this in its list of emergency requests to the Japanese government, but Prime Minister Fumio Kishida rejected the revision of the agreement, stating that “[at the present time] it is difficult to state the route by which [omicron] spread.”

In South Korea, U.S. military staff are being tested for COVID-19 following the completion of a quarantine period upon their arrival in the country. The Okinawa prefectural government has requested that Japan be permitted to conduct tests on U.S. military arrivals, but the Americans have thus far refused to allow this. There are Japanese employees who are constantly moving on and off the bases, as well as U.S. military staff who live off-base. Restrictions on leaving the bases will be ineffective unless Japan is able to conduct tests to prove that staff are negative for COVID-19 before being allowed to leave.

While there has been criticism that the Japanese government’s quarantine policy to counter omicron has been too strict, this does not apply to the U.S. military, which is left to its own devices. The American bases, which have been ridiculed as “buckets with holes in them” that lack any consideration for the safety and well-being of the people whose country they are stationed in, have even failed to prevent the spread of omicron among their own ranks, thus compromising their ability to respond rapidly in the event of a military crisis.

If it is revealed through genome sequencing that the rapid spread of omicron in Japan has its origins in the American bases, the Japanese government will need to take responsibility. First of all, the government should force the Americans to implement a prohibition on leaving the bases, and then proceed to work on a revision to the Status of Forces Agreement.

The risk of the spread of infectious diseases from the U.S. military bases is not limited to the immediate areas around them, but extends to all of Japan. The revision of the Status of Forces Agreement is therefore a nationwide issue.

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