I thought I’d write today about my experiences on the front lines of the world’s battle with the coronavirus. It turns out I can’t, though. I’m nowhere near it.
Well, not exactly “nowhere near it.” I’m somewhere near it. But it’s not really the “front lines,” either. At the moment, Japan is at a middle distance from the virus now known as COVID-19 — far enough from the heart of the outbreak that we haven’t been dramatically affected, but close enough for panic to have set in anyway.
Let me illustrate this through the stories of three people in Japan who have been affected by the outbreak. I’ll start with the least serious among them. Namely, me.
COVID-19 has been a moderate waste of my time, which is getting off pretty light, all things considered.
Our university canceled its study abroad program this year, which is something I have a hand in preparing. I spent time in the early part of the year working with 27 students bound for New Zealand, and then, on Jan. 31, the school pulled the plug.
At that moment, Japan had just a handful of COVID-19 cases, and New Zealand had none. Still, the decision was made to play it safe, and the school began getting everyone’s money back to them — to the tune of $150,000.
A little wasted effort for me, 27 students whose study abroad got axed, and a small fortune that never got spent. Not great, but not terrible.
My wife Ayumi’s situation has been a little more of a rollercoaster. She works in the cruise business, promoting our city of Kanazawa as a destination for cruise lines.
When news began
spreading at the beginning of the year about China’s coronavirus outbreak, it looked like Ayumi would have a busy year ahead of her. China began locking down its cities, and cruise ships in this part of the world began to scramble for alternate destinations. My wife’s office started receiving phone calls from cruise lines trying to reroute, and it looked like Kanazawa Port would have its busiest year on record.
By February, though, cancellations were coming in more quickly than the new requests ever had. The Diamond Princess cruise liner quarantined in Yokohama Port (a ship my wife has sailed on twice) and the turning away of other infected ships from Japanese ports had a chilling effect on cruise companies’ desire to come here at all. Ayumi has been marking ships off her schedule for a few weeks now. She mentions the bittersweet feeling of the free time she’ll have this spring with so little work to do around the port.
But neither my nor my wife’s story compares to Aubrey Zhang’s, a co-worker and good friend of mine from China’s Hubei Province, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak.
February and March are the downtimes between school semesters in Japan, and Aubrey had long before booked flights for two separate trips during this period — one to South Korea and another to Beijing. Then this, as reported in the Japanese newspaper The Asahi Shimbun: “Japan on Feb. 1 started imposing a blanket ban on entry by foreign nationals who have visited the Chinese province of Hubei during the past two weeks and those whose passports were issued by the province.”
Aubrey canceled everything. Had she left Japan, even for sightseeing in South Korea, having Hubei listed as her birthplace on her passport would have kept her from reentering Japan indefinitely, which easily could’ve cost her her job.
Aubrey’s concerns these days, however, are mostly for her parents back home. As Aubrey tells me, her parents’ apartment complex has been locked down since Feb. 2 when coronavirus cases were confirmed within. A guard stands at the entrance to make sure no one comes or goes. Boxes of vegetables are dropped off from time to time by the government. No one is exactly sure when they’ll be able to set foot outside their apartments again.
So Japan, for now, is still in the middle distance. We haven’t seen anything like the spread and reaction in China, but there have been some massive secondary effects, especially to business and travel.
One final note — I wrote and rewrote this over the course of Sunday and Monday, Feb. 16 and 17. Every time I sat down at the computer, a new story would break, making me rethink Japan’s situation. New cases of the virus popped up in four Japanese cities.
The emperor canceled a public address to avoid creating the viral breeding ground of a large event. An hour after that was announced, 38,000 people were disinvited from the Tokyo Marathon, participation now being limited to a couple hundred elite runners trying to qualify for the Summer Olympics. Oh yeah, the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics. Yikes.
Japan may not be on the front lines, but we can sure see the front lines from here. And they seem to be moving this way.
Justin Whittinghill is an Owensboro native who works as an assistant professor of English at Kanazawa Institute of Technology in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan. His column runs on the last Sunday of the month in Lifestyle. He can be reached at email@example.com.