Life in Japan With Covid-19: Government Inaction

In my continuing series on living in Japan during the now pandemic-level spread of COVID-19, I wanted to take a look at the sociological and political toll its has taken here in Japan. Disclaimer: As an outsider, and someone not extremely proficient in the language or completely understanding of the culture, my opinions may contain many misunderstandings, and for those, I apologize. Call me out in the comments so I can fix that; I don’t want to have a bunch of inaccurate information on my blog, adding to the myriad problems already associated with this pandemic. Let’s take a look at what the Japanese government is (and isn’t) doing for this illness.

Update on Hoarding

Am I still without toilet paper and masks? Well, masks are still in very short supply. I haven’t seen those around very much, given their high demand. Toilet paper, on the other hand, seems to be returning to normal supply levels as stores are getting in new shipments. Shelves are actually holding toilet paper longer than one day and I think the limit on one bag per day has helped that out. I think if people see the supplies on the shelves, they don’t freak out as much as if they saw empty shelves.

Without further ado, let’s delve into the topic this week:

Ineffective Inaction: The Diamond Princess

So, here’s a brief recount of this infamous cruise ship. I can’t really talk about the government response without having this mentioned somewhere, because it really set a terrible precedent that has seem to become the standard here when dealing with the virus outbreak.

The cruise ship docked down in Yokohama, but due to some infections on board, the Japanese government quarantined the ship and didn’t allow the passengers to disembark. Once they let the people off, they didn’t do any exit testing for the passengers.

A few big, big problems here: First, cruise ships are notorious for being breeding grounds of sickness. Second, not testing people after they got off allowed people who were infected to go out into the wild and potentially infect more, instead of being safely quarantined. It’s no surprise, then, that several hundred people from the cruise ship ended up being infected.

Testing Limitations: Who’s in Charge?

Recently, Japan had to cave to pressure to increase the testing done in-country to catch suspected cases of COVID-19. I can’t attest to why this was the case. It could be as simple as the government not wanting to look bad with a huge outbreak or seeing a large number of outbreak clusters after the beating they took for their handling of the Diamond Princess. At the time of writing, Japan is administering 7000 tests a day now, but only after intense international scrutiny. But getting access to those tests brings a whole new set of problems.

First is public perception of people who go get the tests. Asian Boss did a wonderful interview with people on the streets of Tokyo about how they are handling and what they are thinking about COVID-19. They talked a lot about testing the the government and two big ideas came out: The public isn’t accurately informed and people don’t trust the government reports. Contained in there, people talked a lot about rumors and gossip, with wild speculation now seemingly pretty common. One woman discussed how even going to get the test might ruing your reputation, cause you to lose face, and be perceived to be a threat to the literal health of the community. Not a good start if you want people to get tested.

Second is that the health departments on the local level seem wildly incapable of handling what’s going on and they don’t want to take responsibility for people getting tested. An alarming interview with an Australian national living in Japan highlights this ineptitude: After many efforts trying to find somewhere to get information on testing, he was redirected to the exact same people he started talking to, and left feeling defeated by bureaucracy, he ended up just weathering the storm of sickness on his own.

Another alarming story came from Aichi prefecture, an asymptomatic man was released from the hospital and told to wait at home while they found a facility that would help treat him (his test was at night, and many hospitals and medical centers in Japan are closed in the evenings, like regular businesses). The man instead went bar hopping, reportedly telling everyone he encountered that he had tested positive. The local government held a press conference saying, essentially, that they were sorry about the whole situation, which is pretty boilerplate for Japanese politicians.

UPDATE (3/18.20): The man who perpetrated this intentional infection of others has died, but not before infecting at least one of the hostesses at one of the bars he visited.

Inside the Diet, the Japanese governing body (Photo by Chris 73, shared thanks to GFDL)

The issue is probably institutional in nature, all these missteps. The main organization in charge of overseeing this mess is the National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID), but they are under direct control of the national government. This means that the government exercises more direct control over their operations and messaging, which, as we have seen with the above examples, seems to be a very, very big problem. Perhaps a bit more autonomy might have sped up the response? Allowed for a more adequate response to the whole mess? Or maybe spending less time parsing words, spend more time establishing better communication, and give fewer soundbites that ultimately boil down to “you misunderstand, public, calm down?” Just reflect on the last time you told someone in a bit of a panic to calm down and think if that is a sound strategy.

It’s very disheartening, especially as a foreigner living here, to see how this is all playing out in the country. I’m also very worried about how it’s being handled in my motherland (spoilers: It isn’t being handled at all), but I’m not personally worried about getting it. There have been three confirmed cases in my city, but I’m not exactly the most at-risk for the disease being fatal. Nothing to do now but avoid touching my face, wash my hand vigorously for 20 seconds, and try to minimize my time outside.


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