Since mid-January, the name on the lips of increasing numbers of TV news announcers and commentators has been “Bukan,” which is how the Chinese city of Wuhan is pronounced in Japanese.
The contagion that is believed to have originated from that city, COVID-19, is said to bear close similarities to SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), first identified in southern China in 2003, and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), which broke out in 2012. Based on the timing and first victims of the outbreak, it’s believed the new coronavirus jumped species from a wild animal, possibly a bat, sold at Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. The market was shut down by authorities on New Year’s Day.
Despite efforts to quarantine most of Hubei province and curtail nationwide travel during the Lunar New Year holiday, the epidemic of shingata birusu haien (new viral pneumonia) has by now spread to most of China’s provinces and killed more than 1,000 people.
Japan has adopted a strategy of stopping the virus at its shoreline — quite literally in the case of the more than 3,700 passengers and crew aboard the cruise liner Diamond Princess that is presently docked at Yokohama Port. The government has since allowed the elderly and chronically ill to disembark.
And if the situation worsens? Some major companies aren’t waiting for the authorities to intervene, but have contingency plans to allow their staff to engage in remote work, which usually means working from home.
A spokesperson for Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance, for example, tells Nikkan Gendai (Feb. 5) that it has a plan for members of the entire group (about 100,000 workers) to perform their jobs from home or satellite offices for two days per week (or more, after consulting with a supervisor). The company has distributed personal computers to its entire workforce, which have been set up to enable teleconferencing and chat.
“This is speedier than emails and makes it easy to communicate in real time,” he says.
And how about places with a high risk of contagion, especially crowded public transport? A spokesperson for Tokyo Metro told Shukan Bunshun (Feb. 6) that it has not put any special measures in place.
JR Tokai, which runs bullet trains between Japan’s two largest urban areas, has said it will “act in accordance with information and requests from the authorities.”
So what’s the first line of defense against a coronavirus? “It’s the same as avoiding an ordinary cold,” says Dr. Takao Omagari, director of the International Center for Infectious Diseases of the National International Medical Research Center. “First, wash your hands regularly. Maintain a good physical condition by getting plenty of sleep, eating well and exercising. And if you find yourself close to someone who’s coughing or has a continuously runny nose, properly wear a face mask.”
The Medical School at the University of Hong Kong has reportedly forecast that the epidemic might not peak until April or May, but Koji Wada, a professor at the International University of Health and Welfare, tells Shukan Bunshun that sporadic outbreaks may persist until summer, spurring fears that Japan’s hosting of the summer Olympics may be endangered.
A key concern is not so much whether or not the Olympics will be held, as whether holding the games might aggravate the epidemic.
“It will be necessary to remain guarded at the Tokyo Olympics, which begin in July,” Kansai University of Social Welfare professor Yoshiaki Katsuda tells Friday (Feb. 14). “History records any number of cases when contagious diseases were spread following so-called ‘mass gatherings,’ involving large numbers of people who converged somewhere for a specific period. Take the recent epidemic of measles that spread throughout the United States from Disneyland in California. The same applies to Neisseria meningitidis that spread during Hajj pilgrimages to Mecca several years ago.”
In fact, the epidemic has already affected the upcoming Olympic Games. Shukan Jitsuwa (Feb. 20) reported that Wuhan was supposed to be the venue for the Asia and Oceania qualifying rounds for boxing. These were already transferred to Amman, Jordan, and Sydney, Australia. The final elimination rounds for women’s basketball, meanwhile, were moved from Foshan in China’s Guangdong province to Belgrade, Serbia.
“In the highly commercialized games of today, many professional athletes take part on national teams such as soccer, basketball and tennis,” an executive at a major ad agency is quoted as saying. “In financial terms, if there’s a risk to their health, taking part in the Olympics isn’t worth it. So even if they go ahead and hold the games, the biggest stars won’t make the trip.”
In any event, the “turning point,” as far as a “go” or “no-go” decision to hold the games is rapidly approaching.
Aside from surgical face masks vanishing from shelves in retail outlets, Nikkan Gendai (Feb. 8) predicts that the next impact on people’s daily lives may occur at so-called 100-yen stores, which are dependent on China for a large percentage of their merchandise.
“In response to rising wages in China, retailers have been gradually shifting production of goods to southeast Asian countries,” investment consultant Fumiyuki Nakanishi tells the tabloid. “Still, China has maintained its status as the ‘world’s factory.’ If the epidemic becomes drawn out, I suppose stocks of merchandise will dry up, and a portion of store shelves will be empty of goods.”
China is also said to be a major supplier of imported frozen vegetables, including 463,000 tons of string beans, spinach and broccoli, and 127,000 tons of frozen processed foods such as okonomiyaki (Japanese pizza) and fried chicken parts (annual figures for 2018).
“Any interruption in the supply of frozen foods from China will have a pronounced impact on consumers here,” a source in the food industry says.
Meanwhile, Spa (Feb. 11-18) cast a critical eye at the occasional flare-ups of cases of fear-mongering and discrimination, such as signs in stores in tourist areas saying, “Chinese tourists not welcome” and derogatory posts on Twitter. One company, not named, reportedly tweeted that Chinese students would not be welcome at its recruiting orientation.
What’s needed most right now, Spa concludes, is to be afraid — but rationally.
Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.