Although Japanese authorities were relatively late in their insistence on social distancing and self-isolation, the official results with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic have been encouraging — low numbers recently in terms of infections and, particularly, deaths. But there is almost no media consensus as to why Japan has been spared the kind of suffering that so many other countries are experiencing.
One constant in the coverage is the acute danger of infection within households owing to daily close contact among family members, not to mention the country’s typically cramped living conditions. The low infection rate in Japan can be credited to the seriousness with which the populace has followed social distancing guidelines, which would explain the high percentage of those infected who got the virus from a loved one.
An April 22 FNN Prime Online feature explained that one of the reasons for the prevalence of intra-family infections is that people who develop symptoms tend to wait for test results at home and, sometimes, it takes days to get them back. People in the studio discussed the case of freelance announcer Tamao Akae, whose husband tested positive on April 15 and was hospitalized. It wasn’t until later that Akae herself tested positive, though, fortunately, her 2-year-old daughter did not. Akae sent a message to her radio show saying that if both parents fell ill, who would take care of their child? One FNN studio guest, actor Tetsuya Bessho, noted that he thought he should keep a suitcase packed just in case, presumably so he can move out and protect his family if he becomes symptomatic.
Local governments have responded to this reality by making arrangements with hotels to house infected people exhibiting mild symptoms so that they can avoid passing the virus on to family members.
A May 8 Tokyo Shimbun article explained how comparatively few infected people in Tokyo have taken advantage of the prefecture’s hotel isolation program since it started April 7. Having found there was a significant increase in the number of people who contracted the virus from family members, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government encouraged those who tested positive but weren’t sick enough to warrant hospitalization to take shelter in designated hotels at the government’s expense. However, only one-sixth of the rooms made available per day were being used at the time the article was published, and about three times as many people who had tested positive were remaining at home as were taking up the offer to self-isolate outside their homes.
The reason for their reluctance was the one mentioned by Akae. Who would take care of children, elderly parents, even pets? Tokyo said it was studying measures to provide care for dependents in cases where someone had to enter quarantine.
A related article in the same edition of Tokyo Shimbun described a 33-year-old man who fell ill on April 4 and finally received a positive test result on April 16. Since he lives with elderly parents, he decided it would be better to self-isolate away from them and checked into a hotel designated by the government.
There is a doctor and a nurse on the premises who monitor his temperature and blood-oxygen levels twice daily. Although he appreciates the thorough attention, the stress is palpable. The room is small, and he can only leave it to go to the lobby to pick up meals. The windows can’t be opened and the sheets on his bed were not changed, but his main concern was that no one gave him a prognosis, so he never had any idea when he would leave. He eventually checked out on April 29. He was grateful for the room, but said it was more difficult than he had imagined.
Still, it’s better than the hospital. On April 7, tabloid Nikkan Gendai ran the story of a 52-year-old man who in March developed a fever and a sharp pain in his throat that became unbearable. A clinic told him it couldn’t refer him for testing because it believed he had the seasonal flu. It prescribed medication.
There was no improvement, so the clinic checked his blood and performed an X-ray, which showed, respectively, a high white blood cell count and a shadow on his lungs. The clinic sent the results to a public health center, which summoned the man to a hospital in Tokyo where he was placed in an ICU. He spent about a week there before being moved to a regular ward. What made the article doubly compelling was that the man’s mother was also hospitalized with COVID-19, and he assumes it was he who had infected her.
The online magazine Encount ran a similar story on May 6, but the subject was a 25-year-old company employee who was diligent about social distancing, washing his hands and wearing a mask, who nevertheless caught the virus and spent about a week in a hospital and then transferred to a hotel to wait for negative test results after his symptoms subsided. His experience was traumatic but less fraught than that of the man in the Nikkan Gendai article because he lived alone.
Since both Nikkan Gendai and Encount trade in sensationalism as part of their brands, these stories may have been chosen for their drama, but they effectively show that, even if the subjects profiled represent a small minority, the disease has to be taken seriously and, since the authorities cannot force people to take certain precautions, it’s up to the media to explain the effects, under the current medical regime, that the virus can have on individuals and, by extension, their relatives.
It’s every family for itself. According to the FNN report, the health ministry’s guidelines for limiting intra-household infections are basically a concentrated version of its guidelines for everyone: keep to separate rooms as much as possible, hang curtains in larger rooms to reduce contact and mitigate the possibility of sending the virus into the air by not talking as much.
As one doctor said on the broadcast, these guidelines have “little meaning” in such an environment. If someone presents symptoms, the only means of protecting their family is for that person to move out until they’re free of the virus. Keep that suitcase packed.
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