“Our staff were really shocked, severely shocked,” said Masaaki Yamada, the hospital’s administration chief, explaining that the affected workers had not necessarily been in close contact with infected patients.
“Some even said they were afraid to go home, and afraid of being seen by their neighbors,” he said. “They got family members to put the garbage out for them. Some said they would go to work when it was dark and come home when it was dark again.”
The hospital received anonymous phone calls telling employees to die or threatening to burn the place down.
Nearly nine months after the coronavirus first arrived in Japan, “korona sabetsu” (coronavirus discrimination) is proving almost as hard to eradicate as the virus itself.
Japan does not release the names of covid-19 patients out of respect for their privacy, but often identifies where clusters of infections have occurred. Hospitals, elderly care centers and universities have faced abuse on social media and by phone after outbreaks occurred, with staff and students facing indiscriminate blame.
Health workers’ children have been isolated and bullied at school.
“Japanese people tend to have a low tolerance for uncertainty,” said Asako Miura, a psychology professor at Osaka University. “I suspect that blaming someone who gets infected could reduce their own fears, because it makes something uncertain seem less so.”
When hundreds of medical workers were dispatched to work aboard the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship in the early stages of the pandemic, they came home to find themselves treated like “germs,” the Japanese Association for Disaster Medicine said, with their children told not to attend schools or kindergartens, and their managers accusing them of potentially bringing back the virus.
In a statement, the association lamented “cries from the ground” from medical workers who risked their lives to save those of others but suffered treatment that was “unreasonable almost beyond belief.”
When a single staff member tested positive for the coronavirus at the Jushindai elderly care center in the city of Kumamoto in southwestern Japan in February, the phone soon started ringing off the hook, said manager Kiyoshi Nakao.
“Many people were trying to find out exactly who was infected — as though they were trying to track down a criminal,” he said. “But the patient herself was having the most difficult time, and this really hurt her deeply.”
Japan has a sad history of shunning or blaming victims, from leprosy sufferers and their families to survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who felt ostracized and were seen as undesirable marriage partners. Evacuees of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster faced similar treatment.
Indeed, surveys conducted by researchers from various Japanese universities in spring and summer showed that Japanese people were significantly more likely than Americans or Britons to agree with the statement: “If someone is infected with the coronavirus, I think it is their fault.” (Still, it was a minority who expressed that view.)
In a survey by a state-run hospital conducted in June and July, nearly 1 in 3 children between the ages of 6 and 17 said they would want to keep it a secret if they caught the coronavirus.
Writing in the Mainichi newspaper last month, physician Yasushi Taniguchi said he had seen cases where young people refused to take coronavirus tests, fearing discrimination, blame and stigma.
“Why are there not a few people who refuse the test? That’s because there are many who discriminate. It’s been only less than a year since the new coronavirus arrived, yet discrimination has become rampant in every part of the society.”
Foreigners have suffered discrimination, while even domestic tourists haven’t been spared: People coming from Tokyo, the center of the epidemic in Japan, have been scrutinized and shunned when visiting other parts of the country, with some stores in rural Japan displaying signs saying people from outside the prefecture aren’t welcome.
The government has tried to step in. As far back as early May, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warned that discrimination “could have even greater impact on our society than the virus.”
Later that month, the air force Blue Impulse aerobatics team flew over Tokyo to show appreciation for health-care workers fighting the virus.
“Blaming your neighbors will not make the virus disappear,” the nationwide association of prefectural governors said in a statement last month, asking people to extend a circle of “thoughtfulness” and “kindness.”
In Tokyo, the Metropolitan Board of Education issued a manga, or comic, telling the story of the child of a nurse who is shunned by his friends at school until his teacher is informed and takes action.
To some extent, the campaign has gained momentum. Human rights groups, celebrities and social media influencers have come together to produce fliers and YouTube videos decrying discrimination.
Horikawa Hospital in Kyoto and the Jushindai elderly care home in Kumamoto both received a flood of supportive calls after the initial criticism and abuse subsided.
But the intense social pressure in Japan to comply with coronavirus directives, from wearing masks to avoiding risky encounters, also fuels resentment against those who don’t cooperate.
“A small number of people are going out and get infected by the virus at a time when most people are restraining themselves and staying at home,” said Takuya Tasso, the governor of Iwate prefecture, who has taken a lead role in trying to stamp out discrimination there.
“Some people respond by condemning them violently,” he said. “But sometimes on social media we only hear the bullies and not the people who disagree with them. We need to make their voices heard as well.”