Having survived earthquakes, typhoons and stairway accidents, Japan is now trying to kill me with a viral epidemic. In fairness, it’s not just Japan, this is a problem all over the world now, but because of Japan’s proximity to China and the economic and personal ties so many families have, and of course the fact that Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area by population in the word and especially vulnerable to epidemics.
Just in case you are reading this article in the far future, some context. The Covid-19 virus, known as Coronavirus was first identified in January 2020 after an outbreak centering around a market in Wuhan, China. Since then the number of cases in China has skyrocketed, and gradually cases are being identified in other countries with some (like Iran, Italy and South Korea) spreading very fast with numbers of cases increasing exponentially.
To date, Japan has the second highest incidence but the majority of those were from one unfortunate cruise ship that just happened to dock off Yokohama harbour when they started counting. Considering the usual amount of travel between Japan and China, the number of instances outside the cruise ship has been relatively low. The only area where there have been a significant number of cases is the northern island prefecture of Hokkaido.
There have been some effects. Tourism has been down – particularly at Hokkaido’s annual snow festival. Most of Japan’s tourism is from Chinese tour groups, so that is understandable.
Face-masks were always something you saw on trains and people generally out in public, but while last year maybe 30-40% of people on an average train carriage would be wearing them, now it is 80-90%. And I suspect most of the people without masks tried to buy one but found them sold out. I’ve never worn a mask and unless I catch the virus, I don’t intend to start.
More ominously, all the public schools have been closed for two weeks. While private schools (like my language school) are still open, we are affected. Parents have had to stay home to look after their children so they can’t come to lessons. Or, with at least some of my students, the whole families have decided to get out of the city and stay in second homes or with relatives out in the countryside. My kindergarten classes for the next 2 weeks have been rearranged for later in the month – if the schools open again.
I have heard many tales of woe from my adult clients, particularly businessmen who are having business meetings and trips cancelled, production sequestered, supply lines from Chinese suppliers completely closed and sales figures collapsing. Their only consolation is that all their competitors are in the same boat.
The oddest effect is a run (poor choice of words) on one particular product. I noticed huge queues outside all the pharmacies and drugstores before they opened as I travelled to work on a couple of occasions last week. I wondered what they could be queuing for. A new vaccination? More masks? It turns out the answer is toilet paper.
The reason is a rumour that Japan’s supply of toilet paper is one of those products affected by the Chinese lockdown, and the country is within days of running out. It’s not true – I’ve heard from different sources that toilet paper is manufactured in Japan with wood imported from plenty of countries other than China. Nevertheless a rumour can have a powerful effect – from early-morning queues that stretch way down the street, to rows and rows of bare shelves where once a flourishing cornucopia of bathroom hygiene products resided.
Fortunately my share-house has a plentiful supply provided by the managers, there is always 3 or 4 months worth for residents’ use. Although it is the hard scratchy stuff, rather than the soft velvet version.
So far no-one I know has Coronavirus and no-one I know knows anyone who has it. But the way the numbers have jumped up so quickly in other countries shows that complacency can be dangerous. Hopefully this will all blow over in a few weeks. At least we are fortunate that Japan has an advanced, functional healthcare system that takes care of everyone regardless of financial means or pre-existing conditions. I fear for other countries where that is not the case.