Workers providing essential services in Japan during the coronavirus crisis are not only facing a higher risk of infection than most but are also often being treated poorly by those they are helping.
Supermarket employees, delivery truck drivers and postal workers among others have remained at their posts while people in many other occupations have been asked to stay home or work from home under an all-Japan state of emergency.
But the National Supermarket Association of Japan said many workers at its member stores have reported that they are “worn out due to customer complaints” about product shortages and “feel upset at the inhumane treatment” they have suffered.
In many respects, however, the emergence of the coronavirus has changed the shopping landscape.
Transparent plastic curtains have been strung up between cashiers and customers in many stores and the transfer of cash, still the predominant form of payment in Japan, is done via trays rather than hand-to-hand.
Signs have also been posted at some stores to inform customers that they must wear a mask if they wish to enter and once inside that they can only buy a certain amount of some products.
Many people have simply shifted to shopping mostly online and even when they do physically enter stores, they try to keep social distance and avoid crowded times.
But workers at some stores have received complaints from customers that other shoppers have defied government requests to shop alone and have instead come in family groups, creating unnecessary crowding, the association said.
“Customers are frustrated due to stress,” said an official of the Tokyo-based association. “We hope they will understand the circumstances of the stores that are striving to support people’s lives.”
Delivery drivers have also struggled with customers who are concerned about becoming infected through contact with the people tasked with bringing their parcels.
In response to the reactions they have faced, companies have introduced measures to ensure interactions are as distant as possible, both for the benefit of the customer and package deliverer.
In March, a labor union for delivery workers received a report that a driver was sprayed with sanitizer by a customer.
But such reactions have become less frequent after drivers began making it clear they have sanitized their hands and began placing boxes in front of people’s houses to avoid direct contact, rather than handing them over directly.
“If logistics cease, society stops. We must avoid that,” said Junsuke Namba, who heads All Japan Federation of Transport Workers’ Unions which has a membership of about 100,000 truck drivers.
The risk of essential workers catching the virus is real, and when they become infected they can no longer work while they recuperate.
The infection of hospital workers has an obvious impact on the assistance the institutions can provide, with some forced to cease taking outpatients after doctors contracted the virus.
Bus services have also been interrupted due to drivers becoming sick and some post offices have been closed after staff tested positive with the virus.
Lawyer Tetsuro Kinoshita, an expert on industries involving essential workers, is urging the public to show support for those that are putting themselves at risk when doing their job.
“With the prolonged coronavirus crisis, the presence of essential workers is crucial in maintaining our normal lives. We need to show understanding and be considerate of the harsh conditions they face,” he said.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government may have lit up its Shinjuku towers in blue to show support for front-line medical workers, but indications are that they will need more help than that with the crisis looking like it may continue for some time yet.
In response to the situation, the Japanese government’s state of emergency declaration through May 6 over the virus outbreak may be extended due to the continued spread of infections.
The number of people infected with the virus has eclipsed 14,800 in the country, including about 700 from the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was quarantined near Tokyo in February, with the death toll standing at around 450.
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.