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I haven’t seen a post on Ricochet talking specifically about the coronavirus, now known as 2019-nCoV or COVID-19, since Rodin’s post on the 7th. Let me take this opportunity to provide a short update from the other side of the world in Yokohama, Japan. While it’s not China, and not as bad off as China, the way this outbreak is progressing, Yokohama is now, as I’ll explain below, another front in the COVID-19 outbreak. Although I was in the Navy and spent time working in Emergency Management, now I’m just a plain ex-pat enjoying my retirement overseas, so most of what I’ll relate here comes from personal observations and local news sources.
Even with the occasional friction that occurs between China and Japan, Japan remains a favored destination for Chinese travelers. Before the outbreak kicked off, there were tons of Chinese tourists at popular locations across Japan every day. The last time I visited Kyoto a couple of years ago, the big tourist sites, buses, and sidewalks were packed as I had never seen them before. The famous shopping area in Tokyo called Ginza was crowded every day with tour buses and tourists, and while not all of them were Chinese, a vast majority appeared to be. However, starting at about the beginning of this month, Japan’s tourist locations saw traffic dry up. A store owner at Asakusa, one of the most popular sites in Tokyo, just mentioned on a news program that the number of tourists is way down, about 10 percent of normal, or a drop of 90 percent. One of the bigger duty-free stores called Laox, which sells electronics and electrical goods, is decreasing its workforce by 20 percent due to the outbreak.
Although it’s a different scale than China, the number of people in Japan infected with COVID-19 continues to slowly increase, as of today at 63, which I believe is the second highest after China. The first reported case of Japanese who tested positive with COVID-19, but had not visited Wuhan, was a bus driver who had driven a tour group of Chinese from Wuhan a few weeks ago. Soon afterward, a tour guide that had worked on one of his routes was also confirmed to have it. Whether the guide caught it from tourists from China or the driver hasn’t been reported, although this was a big question in the news a couple of weeks ago.
There’s another group of infected people that show the difficulty of limiting the infections, especially since news of the outbreak wasn’t reported early enough. There is a group of Tokyo taxi drivers that tested positive for the coronavirus, and when I first heard about it, I guessed that they must have caught it from a passenger. However, it’s been verified that they caught it from someone on a dinner boat ride they took a month ago, on 18 January. (This is before the outbreak became serious news.)
They were on the boat as part of a company “new year party,” known in Japanese as a shinnenkai (新年会). Many Japanese companies, families, and friends participate in end-of-year parties, known as bonenkai (忘年会, which means “forget the year party”) or new year parties. One of the people working on the dinner boat looks to have caught COVID-19 from someone else who came into contact with a person who had visited Wuhan. Of all of the people on the boat, 2 employees and 9 of the passengers have COVID-19. Did these people spread it before they were tested? How many of the other passengers might not be showing any symptoms but be carriers of the disease? While the public health officials have leads to investigate this incident and try to contain it, there are a couple of other small outbreaks at different locations, in Wakayama and Aichi, where they don’t know how the outbreak started.
Note that the number of infected people in Japan doesn’t include everyone in the country. There’s a cruise liner called the Diamond Princess that has spent many days over the last week or so sitting pierside in Yokohama, about a mile from where I used to work. It spent some time initially at anchor in Tokyo Bay before going pierside, and went to sea outside Tokyo Bay at least once during that time, probably to empty its sewage tanks. Allowing it to moor seems compassionate for the welfare of the crew and passengers. This is much better treatment than what another cruise liner, the Westerdam, has faced in Southeast Asia, since it was refused entrance to a few countries before being accepted by Cambodia. The Japanese are testing people on the ship who show symptoms of COVID-19 and taking those who are verified to have the disease to local hospitals. The total number on the ship who have tested positive was just reported as 454 by NHK news. This number is being reported separate from the total infected in Japan, although the infected people from the ship are being treated ashore in Japanese medical facilities.
It would undoubtedly stink to be stuck onboard the ship, waiting for the quarantine period to end, where you’re not allowed off the ship unless you’re confirmed to have the disease. I’ve been wondering whether, by staying onboard that ship, the infection may have been able to spread to more passengers. If the ventilation system on that cruise liner is anything like the ones on the Navy ships I’ve served on, I wouldn’t be surprised if the disease were to spread to other rooms. However, in response to these concerns, the cruise line company provided a letter containing information from a director at the CDC to all its passengers that there’s no evidence that the disease can spread via shipboard ventilation systems.
That said, there have been more incidents than I knew of where people on cruise liners suffered from virus outbreaks. A trip on a cruise liner sounds appealing, but the information at this site doesn’t make one seem enticing.
The first evacuation of American citizens was from Wuhan early this month. The next evacuation I know of involves American citizens on the Diamond Princess. There were originally around 400 Americans on it. The US government-chartered a couple of passenger jets to evacuate Americans who didn’t show signs of the disease to a couple of military bases in the US. According to this news page, around 330 of them departed this morning, so they should have arrived stateside by now. The news also reported that a few other nations, including Australia, Canada, Italy, and Hong Kong, are planning to do the same thing in the next few days. Other passengers who aren’t infected will have completed the 14-day quarantine in a few days, so those who aren’t infected should be able to get off of the ship soon.
As for personal protective equipment, the Japanese are well-known for wearing face masks when out in public. However, many of the face masks that they sell here are made in China, so the disruptions in China have caused the supply to run very low here. Japanese domestic manufacturers of masks are upping their production, but I don’t think they’ll make up for the shortfall anytime soon. Alcohol-based hand disinfectants are in the same situation, which is too bad since alcohol appears to be the ideal way to kill the virus.
China being a few hundred miles away, the outbreak has been a significant news item on all the news shows and newspapers since it became clear it would be big. I feel fortunate to speak Japanese well enough to understand much of the discussion from the subject matter experts that are brought in for interviews. The information provided has been detailed and dispassionate. Japan is not immune to the desire to avoid discussing embarrassing news, but in this case, the broadcasters seem to be pretty open to most aspects of this problem. Some of the daytime “wide shows” provide a lot of information on what’s going on, with questioners addressing different perspectives and bringing up things that cannot be easily answered.
Even though this is Japan, land of electronic screens, the hosts use huge boards the size of whiteboards, filled with information with details including maps, charts, tables, pictures, as well as comments from experts. These help to make complicated issues more accessible for the layman to understand, while also mentioning details that experts need. In comparison to Japanese commentators, I’m embarrassed when I see the type of coverage shown on American news programs, and how meager it is in comparison. My Navy and EM time have taught me to seek out the details, so I’m also not interested in how someone feels about the problem, I want to know more about various aspects of the problem.
Some of the Japanese experts I’ve seen on local television have said that this outbreak probably won’t die out until May, in which case it will probably get worse before it gets better. The Japanese are cutting down activities here, including such annual major public events as the celebration of the Emperor’s birthday at the Imperial Palace, which was scheduled for this coming Sunday but has been canceled. I expect to see more of this, and my family is limiting how much we go out, a form of voluntary quarantine that serves to lessen risk. They’ve already started talking about possible impacts on the Tokyo Olympics, but the jury is still out on that.
Thankfully, we’re not in China, where more people than the entire population of Japan are currently quarantined. Under the current situation, stopping flights to and from China, as the US and several airlines have already done, seems to have been a prudent move. Hopefully, that’s as far as the restrictions will have to go.
I’ll end this here, let me know if you have questions.Published in