In the age of the COVID-19 outbreak, the sight of someone coughing in public has become a frequent cause for suspicious stares, altercations and even maltreatment at work, leading to the emergence of what has been dubbed by Japanese media as “corohara,” or coronavirus harassment.

Reports are swirling online of fights between strangers resulting from people coughing on trains. Other accounts detail workplace bullying against those who have recently returned from abroad, or even hard-hit Hokkaido, pointing to growing signs of panic among the public.

Reports of workplace harassment have ranged from people being pressured to apologize or take days off for coughing due to hay fever or asthma. Others have reportedly been shunned by colleagues simply for living in a neighborhood where new cases of infection have been confirmed.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s labor affairs bureau noted an increase in inquiries related to workplace problems stemming from the new coronavirus in mid-February. It eventually launched a hotline catering exclusively to such complaints, said Masayoshi Okuda, a metropolitan government official.

The hotline now receives an average of 30 inquiries each day, and popular questions include what to do when one is ordered by employers to take days off despite there being no evidence of infection.

“There are some cases where employees were told by their companies to stay home because they were thought to be at high risk of having contracted the virus due to, for example, their recent return from overseas,” Okuda said.

The hotline has also received complaints of outright harassment, albeit to a lesser extent, such as people being falsely accused by bosses and colleagues of having the virus, Okuda said.

Even hospitals are not immune to instances of hostile behavior toward colleagues suspected of carrying COVID-19, according to the Japanese Association for Disaster Medicine.

The group released a statement last month protesting workplace bullying and maltreatment it claimed befell some of its members — mostly doctors, nurses and other medical practitioners — who had assisted in the effort to stem the virus outbreak aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

“Some of our members, despite having risked their lives to save others on the ship, reported that they had been bullied and treated as if they were ‘germs’ after they had returned to their places of work,” JADM said.

Some were even “told by nursery schools and kindergartens that their children should be kept at home for a while and pressured by their bosses to apologize for engaging in activities on the ship,” said the group, adding that the actions amount to “human rights violations.”

To make matters worse, the pandemic has coincided with the annual peak of hay fever, often referred to as a national disease in Japan because of its prevalence.

As a result, some companies, including Nara-based Meishinsha Co., are marketing badges with messages such as “I have hay fever” and “not contagious” printed on them so that hay fever suffers can clear the air over the source of their coughs or sneezes.

On Tuesday, Meishinsha began selling 2,000 badges spelling out the noncontagious nature of the wearers’ symptoms in Japanese and English.

“As patients with hay fever and asthma increasingly become the target of corohara and experience trouble, we wanted to do something to help them and contribute to the restoration of normalcy to our society as soon as possible,” said Mayumi Asoda, a Meishinsha official.

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