National

Loss, stigma, guilt: Life after recovering from COVID-19 in Japan

by Ryusei Takahashi

Staff writer

For many recovered coronavirus patients, life may never return to what it was before.

To better understand its lasting impact, The Japan Times spoke to individuals who contracted the virus, became hospitalized and have since made full recoveries.

Individually, their stories don’t substantiate any speculation or postulation about the nature of this new virus or the government’s response to it. Collectively, however, they paint a more complete picture of the residual consequences of the deadly virus — be it the loss of a loved one or a prolonged sense of stigmatization or guilt — and subvert the often false assumption that normal life will resume simply because one has recovered.

An unforeseen loss

Jamie Findlay had just returned from a weeklong trip to the United Kingdom when he began to show symptoms.

The 49-year-old lives in Fujisawa, Kanagawa Prefecture, and teaches English at universities. He was born in the U.K. but has been living in Japan for 18 years.

In March, he traveled home to visit family, specifically to see his father, who was receiving chemotherapy treatment for cancer.

The trip was supposed to last two weeks. But Findlay cut it short after escalating reports of new cases in Japan left him concerned that he wouldn’t be able to fly back.

A day after he returned to Japan, both he and his father began to exhibit symptoms. Findlay got a fever after his temperature jumped by two degrees in less than a day. When he visited the hospital, they tested him for everything but COVID-19. It wasn’t until a couple of days later, after his father tested positive, that Findlay was able to get tested.

His result came back positive.

Later the same day, Findlay was admitted to a hospital in Fujisawa, where he shared a room with three others. Nurses delivered his meals and made conversation when they could. Since visitors weren’t allowed, he kept busy by reading books, texting friends or watching movies.

It was a day after Findlay was admitted to the hospital that he received word of his father’s death.

The 75-year-old had been hospitalized in Cambridge, England. His underlying condition, it seems, had weakened his immune system and made him vulnerable to the virus.

Though Findlay and his father practiced social distancing during his March visit to the U.K., the pair went out once for lunch. Findlay believes that may have been when they caught the virus.

It’s difficult to imagine losing family under such difficult circumstances. Even at the time of this interview — nearly a month after he had been discharged from the hospital — Findlay said his father’s passing hadn’t quite sunk in.

“I didn’t, haven’t fully taken in the loss of my father yet,” he said. “I think it might take a long time.”

Soon after the news, a scan would show that Findlay had a mild case of pneumonia.

His symptoms began to subside a week after he was admitted. He received X-rays and blood tests about once a week, as well as a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test once every two days. Finally, after 18 days of hospitalization, he was discharged and allowed to go home.

Though he still has a cough, Findlay has returned to work. Like educators around the world, he’s teaching his students remotely.

As Findlay continues to regain his strength, he looks forward to the day he can return home, be with his family and hold a memorial for his father.

Days before his death, his father had sent him an email in which he told his son goodbye. Evidently, his father knew the odds of a recovery were slim, which made Findlay’s trip to the U.K. all the more important.

“We couldn’t really have a proper funeral,” he sighed, taking a long pause before going on. “Everyone’s got a difficult story at the moment, haven’t they?”

Life after recovery

Although generous care was provided to COVID-19 patients in Japan once they were hospitalized, trouble getting tested to receive treatment was a common experience for many.

The bureaucratic screening process to get tested has had nearly everyone jumping through hoops. The language barrier was and continues to be an added challenge for foreign residents, but most likely isn’t determining whether they get tested.

Sources have said PCR tests were conducted once every two days, and testing positive after initial negative results was a common occurrence. Hospital staff were amicable and went out of their way to make conversation even if the patient’s native language was something other than Japanese, they said.

But their overall experiences quickly diverged after being discharged from hospitals.

While Findlay suffered an irreversible loss in the death of his father, other patients who recovered have been burdened with emotional trauma.

The Japan Times spoke to a number of patients involved in a cluster in Sendai that emerged in late March. The story attracted national attention, and news media chased down sources thought to be connected to the cluster.

As a result, sources spoke anonymously and several asked not to have their full name, age, gender, nationality or occupation revealed.

One patient, an English teacher in Sendai, was hospitalized for nearly three weeks. When symptoms began to emerge, the individual called a testing center for help. They negotiated over the phone at length, but mention of the cluster seemed to produce an immediate reaction on the other end.

Later that day, a staff member from a local testing center appeared at the individual’s house — dressed from head to toe in a full hazmat protective suit — to shuttle them to a local testing center then later a nearby hospital.

“Mentioning the cluster was my golden ticket,” they said.

At the moment, it is policy in Japan that COVID-19 patients must produce two consecutive negative tests to be discharged from a hospital. While hospitalized, the Sendai patient received a total of eight PCR tests. Like others, they first tested positive a number of times, then tested negative, then positive again, then finally negative twice before finally being discharged.

Almost three weeks later, the patient was discharged and sent home. It wasn’t until they re-entered society that they noticed something had changed.

The cluster in Sendai had occurred in a Hub, a British-style pub chain that can be found in almost every corner of Japan. At the time, local media fixated on the fact that these establishments are known to be frequented by foreign nationals.

Local officials attributed the cluster to a group of English teachers from Akita Prefecture, even though said teachers became infected along with everyone else after reaching Sendai.

This, the individual believes, led to heightened xenophobia and prejudice toward foreign residents in the area.

Another patient involved in the Sendai cluster — a 30-year-old Japanese national named Sato, who preferred not have his first name published — didn’t experience the same xenophobia, but said he was instead plagued by an inescapable sense of guilt for having subjected himself to the risk of infection in the first place.

Sato went to the Hub on that fateful night with a group of friends. Within days, he developed a fever and several other symptoms. Within a week, he had tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized soon after.

During his stay, Sato tested positive after testing negative on two different occasions, eventually testing negative twice before being discharged.

Even now, after having recovered, Sato feels ashamed for allowing himself to become infected. While his employer and coworkers have been understanding, his friends who were also infected didn’t necessarily receive such friendly treatment. One even had a rock thrown through the window of their home after local media revealed their name, he said.

“It’s hard not to think about what I could — or should — have done differently to avoid becoming infected and putting the people around me at risk,” Sato said. “Thankfully, my body has recovered from the disease, but I don’t know when I’ll feel normal again.”

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