Tuesday, April 7th, 2020
Today it was announced that the English school I work for would close until May 7th. This was in light of the circumstances which are rapidly approaching what we most feared: that the new coronavirus would begin spreading more and more rapidly in Japan as it has in other countries.
The decision is probably in everyone’s best interest, but we already closed down for two weeks in March, a decision that was carefully considered by our bosses. It was to be done in a way that would not cost the school by having to pay back tuition fees thus insuring that there would be money to pay teachers at the same time guaranteeing students classes would be made up. Now we need to consider a reality where it will be more difficult to cover missed classes and worse, one where teachers are going to have to accept a salary of only 60% of what they – we, I – had been used to. That will be difficult for those of us who have been just barely squeaking by under the usual circumstances.
The rise of infection cases had been very slow. When the virus first began spreading in China, it was on the cusp of the Chinese New Year holiday. Suddenly, reports were out about this new threat but too late to stop holiday travelers from coming over to Japan where they then bought boxes and boxes of masks. In a short time, Japan was the number two infected country. This changed quickly when a super spreader in Korea caused a rapid escalation in infected cases. The Korean government acted swiftly in response and managed to keep the death toll remarkably low.
Then came Italy and Iran, Europe, North America. Across the globe, the virus was spreading and the death rate climbing. But not in Japan. Some people speculated that the number of cases was low because the government wasn’t adamantly testing en mass. The Olympic Games were at stake and the government did not want to have to cancel after all the money and hope that had been invested. But even after a few weeks had passed and the Games postponed, the rate of infection remained surprisingly low. If there had been so many carriers of the virus, the death rate would surely be increasing by now.
Some pointed out that Japan experiences influenza season from November to February every winter season and so already practices to prevent or at least inhibit the spread of flu viruses was already in practice. Japanese wear masks, wash hands, sterilize and sanitize surfaces, make little physical contact, and stay home when ill in most cases. Perhaps that’s one reason why Covid-19 was not infecting people by the hundreds daily. In March, schools and theme parks closed, events were cancelled, and alcohol wipes, gel, and sprays sold out everywhere. So did toilet paper because a rumour spread that toilet paper was produced in China where factories were standing idle. It was in fact nearly all produced in Japan.
Then came the first cherry blossoms and with them the Japanese tradition of gathering in parks and sitting under the blossoms while eating and partying. New cases of infected people began appearing more than before. People were requested to stay home on the weekend of March 28 and 29. Mother nature helped out by dumping snow around the Greater Tokyo area. Bread and pasta sold out in the stores the night before.
But there was no stopping the rise. Sixty people infected, seventy-two people infected, 80, 100, 120… Each day the number of infected people was higher than the day before. I quick look at America’s situation told the government that something had to be done and soon. And at last, we have begun a state of emergency that gives the prime minister certain authorities where his decisions can save lives. But unlike other countries where the rules can be enforced with varying degrees of severity, the Japanese constitution doesn’t permit the government to use force of any kind on the public. Requests can be made. Companies and individuals can choose to hunker down and follow the requests or to go their own way and risk not only their own lives but the lives of all the people around them.
Until now it hasn’t been easy to comply. Basically, people need to work. They commute to work usually riding trains that become increasingly crowded as they approach downtown. At least for the sake of earning a pay cheque and putting food on the table, people go to work. Many companies have asked their employees to work from home or to begin work later and stay later in an effort to thin the rush hour crowds somewhat. Teleconferencing has replaced business trips. But there is still one great weakness and that is people’s desire to get on with their ordinary lives. Especially young people are accused of going out and about, people who may be silent carriers. Then there has also been news about people who test positive but defy doctor’s orders to stay home.
Another problem has been all the air traffic coming in to Japan. Until recently, Japan still accepted flights from Europe and several other places. A German friend of mine told me his parents just walked off the plane and came to his house. He also said that five other friends arrived in Japan and went out around Tokyo. No testing. No quarantine. But the confirmed problems have been from Japanese nationals who returned from abroad, went home, and then showed symptoms of having caught the Covid-19 virus. One family was even tested at the airport, but then they took off to go home before the test results were in. They were positive.
Strangely, Japan has dealt with the viral outbreak so far in a split approach of closure and cleanliness versus lax rules about testing and quarantine. The rise in cases was sure to come, like a typhoon that churns over the ocean south of Kyushu, biding its time before rushing across the length of the archipelago and lashing out with savage gusts and torrential downpour.
From the end of February, my co-workers and I discussed buying extra food in case of a lockdown. We watched the world’s infection rates rise up and heard about the increasing death toll. In the good ol’ U S of A, President Trump denied repeatedly that there was anything to be concerned about in spite of what experts were telling him. Then suddenly there was a crisis and he quickly blamed Obama, denied having any responsibility, talked about his TV ratings, played golf, and then proceeded to snatch away masks bound for Germany. What a hero!
Tomorrow we will have a meeting about what to do and what can be done. Most importantly, how much can we expect to lose of our pay and how can the company survive the next month?
Then I will likely have many days of no work and it would be good to put my time to use. There’s so much to do I could spend eight hours a day for the whole month. There’s photo work, writing, cleaning up, organizing, cleaning out, video-making… But I have also a family to look after. The two weeks that my school was closed in March, I ended spending roughly six hours a day doing cooking, cleaning, shopping – all kitchen-related work! When I had an hour of free time, it was usually spent just keeping up with email, social media, and my turns on Words With Friends. I really must try harder to get constructive work done this time.
It’s late. It’s already very late. Tomorrow… er… today, morning brings a new future to my reality.