TOKYO >> The coronavirus in Japan has brought not just an epidemic of infections, but also an onslaught of bullying and discrimination against the sick, their families and health workers.
A government campaign to raise awareness seems to be helping, at least for medical workers. But it’s made only limited headway in countering the harassment and shunning that may be discouraging people from seeking testing and care, and hindering the battle against the pandemic.
When Arisa Kadono tested positive and was hospitalized in early April, she was only identified as a woman in her 20s in a food business. Soon, friends let her know that rumors were circulating: that the family-run bar she helps with was a virus hotbed; that she was sneaking out of the hospital and spreading the virus.
“It was as if I was a criminal,” Kadono said from her home in Himeji, western Japan, after ending her three-week hospitalization.
Apart from a fever on the first day and a loss of smell, Kadono had no major symptoms, though she repeatedly tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19. Her mother developed pneumonia and was briefly in intensive care at another hospital.
“I really want to change people’s tendency to blame those who get infected,” said Kadono.
Apart from fear of infection, experts say the prejudice against those even indirectly associated with the illness stems from deeply rooted cultural ideas about purity and cleanliness. It’s a culture that rejects anything deemed to be alien, unclean or troublesome.
Medical workers risking their lives to care for patients are a main target, but people working at grocery stores, delivering parcels and carrying out other essential jobs also are facing harassment. So are their family members.
“I can imagine people fear the virus, but we are working hard at the front lines under enormous pressure,” said a nurse in her 30s, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear she might be targeted if identified. “We also have our own families we care about. Discrimination against us just because we are medical workers is discouraging and demoralizing.”
Another nurse was approached by a few mothers and asked to leave a Tokyo park she was visiting with her children. Some nurses are unwelcome at restaurants. Some are rejected by taxi drivers. The Health Ministry issued a directive to day care facilities after some barred the children of doctors and nurses.
A veteran nurse in the northern island of Hokkaido said the mother of one of her co-workers was suspended from her job. The husband of another was told at a job interview he wouldn’t be hired because of his wife’s job.
The nurses, assigned to COVID-19 patients, were staying at hotels to protect their families while working under severe conditions without adequate protective equipment and testing.
“Medical workers are doing their utmost to prevent infections at hospitals. We seek your support,” said Toshiko Fukui, head of the Japanese Nursing Association. “Just a word of thanks is a huge reward that boosts our motivation.”
The backlash against coronavirus patients may lead some who fall sick to avoid seeking medical care, raising the risks of infection spreading further, said clinical psychologist Reo Morimitsu at the Suwa Red Cross Hospital, in an interview with NHK public television. Japanese police reportedly found about a dozen people dead at home alone or collapsed on the streets — all had tested positive for the virus.
“The virus not only infects our body but also our minds and behavior, harming us and dividing our society,” said Morimitsu.
Prejudice against those not viewed as mainstream or “pure” is a legacy of feudal times, when Japanese in such professions as leather tanning and butchering were deemed unclean. Their descendants still face discrimination.
Victims of the 1945 U.S. atomic bomb attacks on Japan, known as “hibakusha,” and others injured in industrial accidents such as mercury poisoning have faced similar treatment. More recently, some who fled the 2011 nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima have suffered bullying and harassment.
Other reports of harassment from across the country:
>> Arson threats against Kyoto Sangyo University after some of its students were infected.
>> An Osaka city assemblyman compared a young patient to “a murderer” of elderly people.
>> In Mie, central Japan, people threw stones at a patient’s house.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denounced the behavior. “It’s shameful,” he said recently. “Anyone could get infected.”
But some places in Japan have begun following the examples of other countries, sending messages of appreciation to medical workers and others in essential jobs.
“People started to cheer us,” said the Hokkaido nurse. “Neighborhood stores sometimes bring us treats like pancakes, fried noodles and milk.”