Leadership’s impact on life and mobility in two cities

I’m planting seeds in a garden for the first time in my life.

Two months ago, I received an email one morning from the Japanese ambassador in Melbourne, alerting me to Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s advice to international students to go back to their countries, if they couldn’t afford living expenses.

At that time, my home country of Japan had recorded a relatively small amount of new COVID-19 cases on a daily basis.

My university, La Trobe, decided to shift all classes online.

I decided to stay in Australia, and as I see out the pandemic while doing new things – like gardening – what’s fascinating to me is how clear the federal government’s policy is for fighting the coronavirus in Australia.

The department of health immediately updated advice on their website, including practice good hygiene, practicing social distancing, following the limits for public gatherings and understanding how to self-isolate if you need to.

On top of that, I found among Victorians two key features: a deep understanding of how the virus spreads among people and the demonstration of strong leadership by the state’s Premier Dan Andrews.

As a Japanese international student in Australia, I noticed some differences compared to the situation at home.

Podcast: Japan’s delayed announcement of a State of Emergency (play on Apple Podcasts)

Car mobility in Tokyo and Melbourne

Mr Andrews announced “stage 2” restrictions in late March, and they took effect from midnight on the 25th of March.

A day before, the federal government said that new restrictions would limit the number of guests allowed at weddings and funerals, and more businesses would have to close.

Mr Andrews’ message – supplemented with sassy social media posts – was loud and clear: if you go out, you will risk someone’s life, so stay at home.

Most of Victoria responded positively to the message, demonstrating a strong sense of community.

According to Apple’s mobility trends report, car mobility decreased by 50%, just one day after the announcement of stage 2 restrictions.

A downward trend has been observed since the state of emergency was declared by the state government on March 16 – the data suggesting that Victorians acted with responsibility in the community.

Mr Andrews also held a press conference with all attendees practising social distancing.

On the other hand, in Japan, the Tokyo Olympic Committee (TOC) announced the postponement of the 2020 Olympics at a meeting room, packed with reporters – at the time, Japanese officials had no idea about the need for social distancing.

In response to criticism of its lack of awareness about social distancing, the government called a state of emergency on April 7.

Japan was hit by the virus in early February and the WHO declared Japan to be the second outbreak outside China – yet the government announced a state of emergency two months later (a topic covered by the podcast above).

The trend of decreasing car mobility has been observed since the announcement by the TOC in Japan.

The government’s declaration seemed to stabilize the trend, and comparing this to Victoria shows a gap in the decrease in mobility, as a result of each countries’ leadership.

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Image: Decreasing car mobility in Tokyo and Melbourne by Yuto Ito (source: Apple Inc. mobility trends report)

Quality of life

The pandemic has forced changes in our lives – I used to go to school four times a week, and on some days, I would hop in my car and spend my stressful commute stuck in heavy traffic.

On other days, I would take a bus for an hour just to attend an hour long class – if you think about that now, when I have time to spend planting seeds in a garden, it’s bizarre.

The Apple figures are evidence of the decrease in car mobility, which has been accompanied by a resultant drop in air pollution in cities.

According to Marc Cadotte, a researcher at the University of Toronto, cities implementing strict policies restricting movement to combat COVID-19 see improved air quality.

The research suggests a strong connection between people’s activity and urban air pollution.

Professor Cadotte told me via an email interview that the important factor to be addressed by the government is “encouraging companies to instil work from home”, raising the point that many people are currently working remotely and spending time locally.

“With so many people altering their behaviour-like working from home or doing more local activities-that is an opportunity for governments to capitalise on,” he said.

“As people start to go back to work, governments can invest in public transport options or use other tools to make public transit more affordable/desirable, and use the messaging about improved air quality to help educate people and sway their choices.”

In my garden, green peas are growing towards the sky, and I have time to look after them during the day.

The pandemic has given me a chance to think about the future of our planet as I finish my postgraduate course in 2020 – most likely, remotely.

Although the university will remain closed by the end of the year, I will spend the time close to my partner and exploring my local community.