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Virus puts demand on specialty cleaners

TOKYO >> Trepidation gave way to excitement when Toru Koremura, president of a Tokyo-based cleaning company, took on the job of disinfecting the Diamond Princess — the cruise ship quarantined in the port of Yokohama that made global headlines early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 38-year-old cleaning specialist admits part of him was scared to delve into what was then considered one of the world’s biggest coronavirus hot spots.

But in the end, what overcame his fear was the thought of what he and others tasked with decontaminating the vessel might be able to achieve: ridding the world of the notion that Japan was tied to the start of the outbreak.

“The idea that we might be able to use our cleaning skills to restore global trust in Japan’s control of the virus … was enough to prod me,” said Koremura, head of the cleaning firm Riskbenefit Co.

The Diamond Princess saga marked the beginning of a surge in demand for disinfection services by Japan’s special cleaning businesses. Typically tasked with cleaning up scenes such as suicides, derelict houses and post-disaster debris, this niche industry is now swamped with work disinfecting COVID-19 hot spots.

In graying Japan, biohazard cleanup has traditionally been used at the scenes of “kodokushi” (solitary deaths), where predominantly old people die alone and remain undiscovered until decomposition has set in.

In response to demand, the number of certified biohazard cleaning specialists has been on the rise, totaling 11,000 as of September — a more than tenfold jump in just seven years. The pandemic has only added to demand. Koremura’s firm has been inundated with hundreds of calls since April.

Unisons, another decontamination cleaning company, has also been deluged with calls for “coronavirus cleaning.” The requests typically come from offices, stores and schools, said Ryosuke Otake, 25, president of the Yokohama-based firm.

Otake says venturing into the COVID-19 arena requires a new level of vigilance.

Protective gear has always been a necessity in his line of work; cleanup staff regularly encounter bodily fluids and used syringes that litter rooms where the ill have died. But when navigating the invisible pathogen, Otake and his colleagues boost their precautions with industrial dust masks, an extra layer of gloves and safety goggles.

The pandemic era has brought forth new protocol as well: Any site of a suicide or lonely death now needs to be handled as though the deceased has contracted the virus. This requires thoroughly disinfecting the premises before tackling the actual cleanup.

Even many months into the pandemic, delving into COVID-19 hot spots remains a daunting task. But any fear Otake feels today is dwarfed by the dread that gripped him when he led his staff onto the Diamond Princess. Disinfecting the vessel has been by far the most onerous task Unisons has ever faced.

Otake co-founded the fledgling business with his childhood friend Kohei Mizoguchi just last year.

The partners, who grew up in Yokohama, say they felt called to help after learning the ship was quarantined just a short distance from their neighborhood. Yet their fear was so overwhelming that they both carried Buddhist amulets with them as they boarded the ship.

Amid the challenges, specialist cleaners welcome the spotlight on their industry. Otake said he hopes it will spark an interest in the issue of solitary deaths, and encourage families to “check in on their parents more frequently to prevent them from dying alone.”

11,000

The number of certified biohazard cleaning specialists in Japan, a more than tenfold jump from seven years ago.

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