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The first thing I noticed was a heavy feeling.

It was a Friday. I tried to convince myself it was something else, maybe unusually high levels of pollution or the result of living in an air-conditioned box all summer, but fear of what it might be lingered in the back of my mind.

I called a COVID-19 helpline the next day. They asked about my symptoms; had I been vaccinated? My ward had only just opened vaccinations for my age group and I was due to get my first dose that week. The operator offered the number of a doctor 30 minutes away and then, without any further information, the call ended.

My health got worse as the weekend continued. Normal tasks became mammoth undertakings and my heart seemed to beat faster. Breathing was definitely harder and, to top it all off, I lost my sense of smell and taste. I was certain I had COVID.

After hearing about it for over a year — the constant news, the casecount, millions of lives lost, vaccination concerns — to know that I had the very thing that had caused the world to shut down was frightening and frustrating. I had been patiently waiting for the vaccine only to be struck down just as I was eligible to get the jab. I’d been following the news in Japan — the lack of hospital beds, people being turned away from hospitals — so I was terrified of things taking a turn for the worse. I felt cut off from all help.

Confused about what next steps should be, I called yet another hotline. I explained my symptoms to the operator.

“Have you been in contact with anybody from abroad?” she asked. I hadn’t. “Where do you think you may have picked the virus up?” This was a harder question to answer. I’d been following all the rules on masking and social distancing. Perhaps, I got it in an elevator?

The operator asked me what I wanted to do, so I told her I wanted a COVID test. She said my options were to either visit a doctor who would determine if I needed a test; or I could pay upwards of ¥20,000 for a test from a predetermined list of companies. I was told to think about it.

I began weighing my options. The test was ultimately pointless if the aim was to determine if I had COVID-19. I wanted my case to be counted in the daily statistics so that, perhaps, the government would have a proper idea of the extent of the pandemic in Japan.

However, getting the test would mean I’d have to take a taxi to a doctor’s office. Would I have to sit in a waiting room? I just had no idea of how many people I could potentially expose to the virus along the way. No, I couldn’t help but think that leaving my apartment would be the wrong thing to do (though I found out later that I would’ve at least been greeted with strict distancing protocols at the doctor’s office). The operators on the hotlines also didn’t seem too concerned with me getting tested, probably because they also knew I had it by hearing the symptoms. We’re not doctors but I think a lot of us have become better at telling the difference between COVID-19 and the flu. So, I became one of what could be several, many or only a couple of undocumented cases of COVID-19 in Japan, but I can’t know for sure.

While dealing with COVID-19 symptoms, Rebecca Saunders received a mystery package of food and information about the coronavirus. | REBECCA SAUNDERS
While dealing with COVID-19 symptoms, Rebecca Saunders received a mystery package of food and information about the coronavirus. | REBECCA SAUNDERS

A surprise at the door

In the moment, I didn’t care. I was tired, my whole body ached; I needed constant rest, but I couldn’t sleep. I could barely walk from one end of the room to the other without feeling exhausted. Even my teeth hurt. Dark thoughts infected my mind, too. I thought about people who died from COVID-19, what they must have been going through. Would I go through the same thing?

A call to my family back home in England eased my fast-growing fears. My friends in Japan also came through for me, messaging support, checking in and offering to bring food over. It made a big difference: I wasn’t so alone after all.

One afternoon, a week into the illness, I found a bag hanging on my front door. Inside was artisan bread, chocolate, cheese, soup sachets and a printed-off sheet with English information about where to get help for COVID-19. The food was a welcome change from the canned stuff I’d been storing in case of an earthquake. I had no idea who had left the package, none of my friends had done it, so I left a note on my door that read, “Thank you for your kindness.”

The next day, a reply was stuck to my neighbor’s door. She must have heard me through the apartment walls coughing, or maybe talking on the phone to my family about having the virus? Up till then I only really offered the briefest of nods and simplest greetings when walking past my neighbors, so this care package was quite a surprise.

This show of support really boosted my spirits. It helped bring me back to the outside world, after feeling so isolated within the four walls of my apartment. I had a renewed sense of wanting to beat this thing and started researching how other people handled their COVID experiences.

I started doing deep-breathing exercises before bed in order to curb the shortness of breath; hot showers to ease my airways; regular doses of Eve A, a brand of Japanese pain reliever; drank gallons of water; and ate copious amounts of sweets because I started to be able to taste them slightly.

Not knowing who left her the care package, Rebecca Saunders left a thank you note on her own door. | REBECCA SAUNDERS
Not knowing who left her the care package, Rebecca Saunders left a thank you note on her own door. | REBECCA SAUNDERS

A return to ‘normal’

Ten days after first feeling sick, I actually began to feel normal again. I had the energy to sweep the floor and wash up. I took slow walks, a little further every day, elated that I could make it to my local park. However, getting back to my pre-COVID routine took about one month. My sense of smell isn’t entirely 100% yet, still, “normal” has never felt so good.

The whole experience kind of gets to what it’s like to live as a non-Japanese resident of Japan, though everyone’s situations are different. The hotlines, the hospitals — it’s all very structured and hard to access, especially when you’re not at your best. There are so many people in Tokyo that don’t have the same kinds of support networks, easy access to testing or even access to simple advice.

As frustrating as all that was, in the end it was a Japanese neighbor’s act of kindness that brought me back from spiraling into dark thoughts and prompted me to start fighting back against the virus. If I’ve learned anything from this, it’s to be nice to your neighbors.

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