The children of Japanese medical professionals are being shut out from day care centers, or being asked for proof they aren’t infected with the coronavirus, adding to the burdens of an already stretched work force on the front lines of the pandemic.
Most schools and centers are closed to prevent the spread of the pathogen, but a few remain open. Sagamihara Central Hospital said some staff took time off after losing access to child care. At Gifu University Hospital, a caller claiming to be from a parent-teacher association asked that their workers be told to keep their children away from school.
Japan has yet to reach the mass infections seen in other developed nations, with just under 12,000 cases as of late Thursday. While discrimination hasn’t escalated into the violence seen in India, depriving people of child care risks reducing staffing even as hospitals in the worst-hit areas struggle to cope. Discrimination against victims of trauma or disaster is nothing new in Japan. Survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, and more recently, those who were near the nuclear plant meltdown following a earthquake and tsunami in 2011 were also shunned by society.
“There’s growing prejudice and discrimination against people in the medical field,” said Shigeru Omi, the deputy head of the government’s advisory panel on the virus. “It’s even extending to their families.”
The Education Ministry earlier this month urged schools to battle such prejudice, saying it could weaken the health care system. While that has helped to avert a complete economic shutdown, it’s a tenfold jump from a month earlier that is fueling anxiety. About 300 people have died of COVID-19 in Japan.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe extended an emergency declaration nationwide last week. That lets local governments issue directives urging people to stay at home, although there are no penalties for noncompliance. Regions can also make their own decisions on whether to close schools or ask other businesses to shut down. The emergency currently lasts until May 6, but may be extended.
Nurses at Sagamihara Central Hospital near Tokyo, which saw a cluster of cases among staff and patients last month, have in some cases taken time off from their jobs after losing access to child care, according to Yoshio Ogura, head of administration. That’s created problems in securing enough staff to run the facility, and carry out non virus-related treatment, he said. “People seem to have the image that everyone who works here is infected.”
The problem of prejudice isn’t just limited to Sagamihara Central, which at one point admitted the first person in Japan known to have died from the coronavirus. There have been 54 infection outbreaks at medical facilities in Japan so far, affecting 783 people, according to the Japanese Nursing Association.
Nobuo Murakami, a professor at Gifu University Hospital, where three doctors were found to be infected earlier this month, said more than 20 staff members had been asked by day care centers and kindergartens to provide medical certification. The hospital had to persuade the centers that freedom from infection is something that’s impossible to guarantee, Murakami added.
He said a caller from a parent-teacher association also asked the hospital to tell staff to keep their children away from school. Sometimes the discrimination is subtler. One nurse at the Gifu hospital was blocked from entering a classroom when she dropped her two children off at a day care center. On another occasion, she saw a child carefully brushing down her clothes after playing with her own child.
The nurse, who asked not to be identified, is not directly involved with the care of COVID-19 patients, but expressed concern that parents could be training their children to be wary of her kids.
Unlike the U.S. and some countries in Europe, loud public outpourings of gratitude to medical professionals are nonexistent in Japan. Nor have members of the imperial family made video calls to express appreciation to the children of medical workers, as was seen in the U.K.
A deep-rooted avoidance of causing trouble for others makes it easy to cast those who get sick as the problem, according to Reo Morimitsu, a clinical psychologist at the Japanese Red Cross Suwa Hospital. Public figures apologizing for being infected may also be encouraging the healthy to blame victims, he said. Famous actors, news presenters and athletes in Japan have all issued formal public apologies for becoming sick with COVID-19.
“That creates the mistaken impression that it’s the individual’s own fault if they get infected,” Morimitsu said. Those who are working with a sense of duty while facing serious risk of infection are the ones being bashed by the society they are serving. “Nothing could be more painful.”