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Pandemic brings outbreaks of bullying and ostracism in Japan

Japanese medical workers and infected patients have reported widespread incidents of discrimination amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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A woman wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walks in front of a clothing shop with a message on glass doors saying “FIGHT!” in Tokyo (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

A woman wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walks in front of a clothing shop with a message on glass doors saying “FIGHT!” in Tokyo (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

A woman wearing a face mask to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walks in front of a clothing shop with a message on glass doors saying “FIGHT!” in Tokyo (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

The coronavirus in Japan has brought not just an epidemic of infections, but also an onslaught of bullying and discrimination against the sick, their families and health workers.

A government campaign to raise awareness seems to be helping, at least for medical workers.

But it has made only limited headway in countering the harassment and shunning that may be discouraging people from seeking testing and care and hindering the battle against the pandemic.

Apart from fear of infection, experts say the prejudice against those even indirectly associated with the illness also stems from deeply rooted ideas about purity and cleanliness in a culture that rejects anything deemed to be alien, unclean or troublesome.

Medical workers risking their lives to care for patients are a main target, but people working at grocery stores, delivering parcels and carrying out other essential jobs also are facing harassment. So are their family members.

“I can imagine people fear the virus, but we are working hard at the front lines under enormous pressure,” said a nurse in her 30s, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear she might be targeted if identified.

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A woman wearing a face mask cleans the menus of a restaurant in Tokyo (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

A woman wearing a face mask cleans the menus of a restaurant in Tokyo (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

AP/PA Images

A woman wearing a face mask cleans the menus of a restaurant in Tokyo (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)

“We also have our own families we care about. Discrimination against us just because we are medical workers is discouraging and demoralising.”

Another nurse was approached by a few mothers and asked to leave a Tokyo park she was visiting with her children.

Some nurses are unwelcome at restaurants they usually eat at. Some are rejected by taxi drivers.

The Health Ministry even issued a directive to day care facilities after some barred the children of doctors and nurses.

The backlash against coronavirus patients may lead some who fall sick to avoid seeking medical care, raising the risks of infection spreading further.

Japanese police last month found about a dozen people dead at home alone or collapsed on the streets who later tested positive for the virus.

Prejudice against those not viewed as mainstream or “pure” is a legacy of feudal times, when some Japanese engaged in professions such as leather tanning and butchering were deemed unclean. Their descendants still face discrimination.

People suffering from ailments such as Hansen’s disease, or leprosy, were likewise forced to live in isolation decades after a cure was found.

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Global coronavirus cases and deaths (PA Graphics)

Global coronavirus cases and deaths (PA Graphics)

Press Association Images

Global coronavirus cases and deaths (PA Graphics)

Victims of the 1945 US atomic bomb attacks on Japan, known as “hibakusha”, and others injured in industrial accidents such as mercury poisoning have faced similar treatment.

More recently, some who fled the 2011 nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima have suffered bullying and harassment.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other officials have denounced such behaviour.

“It’s shameful,” Mr Abe told a recent parliamentary session. “Anyone could get infected.”

Some places in Japan have begun following the examples set in Europe and elsewhere of sending messages of appreciation and praising medical workers and others in essential jobs.

Some offices have started collecting donations and other support for hospitals.

PA