National

Japanese destroyer leaves for Middle East despite virus concerns

Jiji

A Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer left Yokosuka base in Kanagawa Prefecture, for an anti-piracy patrol off the Middle East and African coasts.

The destroyer Onami, with a crew of about 200, departed amid mounting concerns over coronavirus, which is raging around the world.

The Onami may have to withdraw from the mission if an outbreak occurs on board, which has all of what the government calls the Three Cs that must be avoided — closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings.

“It’s extremely important to exercise maximum care to prevent infection and accomplish our duty,” Vice Adm. Hiroyuki Kasui, commander in chief of the Self-Defense Fleet, told the crew before the departure.

The Onami will operate in the Gulf of Aden, which sits between Yemen and Somalia. It will be dispatched for about six months.

The vessel was supplied with 4,000 face masks, government officials said, adding that additional masks will be provided if necessary.

The officials also said an additional 2,500 masks were given to the MSDF destroyer Takanami, engaged in an information collection mission to help secure the safety of Japan-linked ships in the Gulf of Oman and other waters.

The dispatched MSDF ships make port about once every two weeks to resupply. But Djibouti, where Japan has a foothold, restricts the entry of foreigners. In Djibouti or other coastal countries, it is likely that MSDF crew members will not be allowed to disembark and go into town.

“Disembarkation is the biggest pleasure for those who live in the cramped conditions of a ship,” a former MSDF destroyer crew member said. “It would be stressful if there is no disembarkation for a month or longer.”

Any crew member suspected of catching coronavirus would be isolated in a treatment room. In the case of the Onami, a crew member would be flown to a medical institution in a nearby coastal country on a ship-based helicopter if necessary.

“We are trying to confirm whether medical institutions in coastal countries friendly to us have enough capacity” to accept MSDF members if they become infected, a Defense Ministry executive said. If such capacity is lost, it would be difficult for an MSDF ship to carry out its mission if an outbreak occurs aboard.

The spread of coronavirus could exacerbate poverty in Somalia and elsewhere, possibly leading to increased pirate activity. In addition, tensions between Iran and the United States are again becoming strained.

At a news conference, Defense Minister Taro Kono said his ministry is examining various scenarios to consider how to respond if infection occurs on any of the MSDF ships operating in the region.

Your news needs your support

Since the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis, The Japan Times has been providing free access to crucial news on the impact of the novel coronavirus as well as practical information about how to cope with the pandemic. Please consider subscribing today so we can continue offering you up-to-date, in-depth news about Japan.

Coronavirus banner