National

Japanese living in Beijing grapple with coronavirus outbreak

by Tomoyuki Tachikawa

KYODO

While some Japanese living in Beijing are optimistic that the new coronavirus can be quickly contained, many others fear that the deadly outbreak will continue to spread.

The virus has claimed more than 100 lives since being detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.

For Japanese living in the capital, some have taken solace in the fact that the Chinese government has taken drastic steps to curb the contagion. They have also noted that most residents are wearing masks in the city, possibly a result of learned lessons from the 2002-03 SARS epidemic that killed 774 people.

But concerns remain, with some Japanese residents arguing that awareness of good hygiene practices among Chinese remains low given that public facilities including restrooms are not always kept clean.

Major avenues in Beijing, normally teeming with pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles, are almost deserted, with security guards outside buildings wearing masks. Many tourist sites, usually filled with visitors for the Lunar New Year holidays, are shut down, with the government having urged the public to avoid crowds.

Miaohui (temple fairs) — a time-honored tradition for Chinese during the weeklong holiday — have been canceled, while the Forbidden City has been shut.

Municipal authorities in Beijing have also decided to postpone the end of school holidays linked to the Lunar New Year, prompting a large number of Japanese working in the city to send their families back to Japan.

“Chinese people are trying to prevent infection of the new virus, using the SARS epidemic as a lesson,” said a researcher at a Japanese drugmaker operating in the capital. “I think the virus may not expand so rapidly, at least in Beijing.”

The coronavirus that triggered SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, sickened 8,098 people worldwide.

The number of patients confirmed to be infected with the new coronavirus has exceeded 100 in Beijing, but the pace of the increase has apparently slowed in recent days, the researcher said, adding that this might be thanks to the precautions that have been taken.

“People here have been used to wearing masks due to air pollution,” said an employee at a Japanese electronics company, who has worked from home in Beijing since earlier this week. Ironically, he said, that factor is helpful amid the outbreak.

In the capital, masks have sold out at many stores.

Coronaviruses generally cause common cold-like symptoms affecting the nose, sinuses or upper throat and are spread through sneezing, coughing or direct contact. Wearing a mask and regular hand-washing can be effective ways to prevent the infection.

Public transportation services have been already suspended in Wuhan — an international business hub with a population of over 11 million — and nearby cities have followed suit. Wuhan is about 1,000 kilometers south of Beijing.

Starting Monday, the Chinese government also banned all outgoing group travel abroad in an attempt to stop a global pandemic of the virus, which has been found to transmit between humans, as President Xi Jinping has pledged to make every effort to combat it.

“China has implemented aggressive and unprecedented measures to thwart infection,” said Hiromi Nagae, a 36-year-old housewife living in Beijing. “We hope that the situation will turn around in the not-so-distant future.”

Japanese who have resided in China for decades, however, are pessimistic, criticizing standards for cleanliness and hygiene in the country.

“For example, Chinese people still think toilets are by their very nature unhygienic places,” said Yukihiro Yoshimura, a 40-year-old businessman who has lived in the capital for nearly 20 years. “Even in hospitals in Beijing, toilets are very dirty.”

“It is natural for a virus to spread in this country.”

“We have to protect ourselves by washing our hands, gargling and wearing masks” as preventive steps, as influenza and colds are common at this time of year, Yoshimura added.

On Wednesday, state media reported that confirmed cases of infections from the new coronavirus have topped 6,000 in mainland China, surpassing the number affected there during the SARS epidemic. The SARS virus infected 5,327 people in the country.

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