Visible Minorities: Japan’s Botched Response to the Coronavirus
SNA (Tokyo) — The drama of cruise ship Diamond Princess, currently moored at Yokohama and quarantined by Japan’s Health Ministry due to some of the 3,700 passengers and crew testing positive for the coronavirus, is a human rights crisis.
The Covid-19 outbreak that originated in China has killed more than 1,700 people and sickened tens of thousands.
Here’s my take: Surprise! I’m not going to argue that the prison-ship conditions are due to racism, but more a matter of official stupidity.
Racist would be what happened in Japan during the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003 and the H1N1 swine flu in 2009. Back then, some hotels and other businesses refused entry not only to all “Chinese,” but also to all foreigners (and it happened to me, even though I’m not a foreigner). Racist was the idea that the contagion was a foreign thing, and Japanese (who by that time had also been infected) were somehow immune.
To be sure, exclusions like that are indeed happening again here and in other countries, as public fears outrun the coronavirus’s infection rate. But to see the Diamond Princess fiasco in the same light would miss the point: It’s more Japan’s germophobia than xenophobia.
Remember that Japan is a place where face masks are fashion, and even bokin (bacteria-resistant) bicycle handlebar grips are marketable. Even after definitive science on the non-contagiousness of Hansen’s Disease was known, Japan was one of the last countries to abolish its leper colonies. Japan’s over-prescription of antibiotics has created medicine-resistant superbugs. Indeed, cleanliness has reached the point of becoming impossibly antiseptic.
Given this aversion to germs, it’s no wonder Japan’s knee-jerk reaction was to make the Diamond Princess into a lazaret.
Nevertheless, the Japanese government botched it. The right thing, as Italy and Hong Kong did with their cruise ships, would have been to immediately test everyone on the ship and then quarantine those certifiably infected, or to quarantine everyone off-ship in hotel rooms for the two-week period. There should have been enough hotel rooms for 3,700 people considering the preparations for the Olympics this summer.
Instead, they kept everyone on board, dubiously citing insufficient testing kits, and converted the ship into an incubator—thus ensuring that more people would infect each other. The Diamond Princess has become the largest coronavirus outbreak outside of China.
Why? Here’s where the stupid comes in: authorities just didn’t want Japan’s infection statistics to go up.
If passengers had deboarded, they would have officially entered the country, and anyone testing positive would have to be added to Japan’s official numbers of infected. This would embarrass Japan’s leaders, who are suffused with the chauvinism that “rich, developed Japan is not like China or the rest of Asia.” Many a statistic that might dent national pride (such as Japan’s celebrated, but artificially-low unemployment rates) are routinely fudged. Sure enough, according to the Johns Hopkins Department of Civil and Systems Engineering website, the 355 confirmed cases on the Diamond Princess remain uncounted by any country.
But again, this stone-headedness is not a matter of racism, because the largest nationality on board (1281 passengers, about a third), are in fact Japanese. They’ve been caught up in the stupid and not getting any exceptional treatment. They’ll just have to stay on board and gaman (persevere) like everyone else.
But that’s another thing the Japanese government botched: the willingness of all the passengers to simply gaman the stupid. The Diamond Princess is an international ship, and passengers from other countries aren’t going to do what’s expected by Japanese authorities. They are not going to quietly do as they’re told.
In fact, many people with different historical touchstones about being quarantined might object to being trapped on a Kalaupapa, a Swinburne Island, a Poveglia, or a wartime “hell ship.” So they did something about it. Passengers and crew have internet access, and they complained loudly to their respective governments and media about the increasingly intolerable conditions they have been subjected to.
Viral videos and interviews have turned the Diamond Princess into a much bigger embarrassment than some statistical infection rate blip. Instead of looking like Asia’s foremost modern, clean, and civilized country, Japan has only managed to look unprepared to handle international standards of disease control, or for that matter the international tourism Japan wants so badly.
However, the Diamond Princess isn’t just another case of Japan’s ham-fisted handling of international issues that usually goes unnoticed by the outside world. People might actually die from the official incompetence this time.
This sore lack of viable emergency plans, despite all the prior waves of epidemics, is once again due to Japan’s vestigial self-image of being an isolated island chain, and how that fact somehow keeps it safe and immune from problems plaguing the rest of the world.
At this point, all the Japanese government can hope for is the disease will run its course in a few weeks, and everyone will just get sick, recover, and go home. But if somebody dies on this modern-day “hell ship” they’ve created, that’s not a blameless Act of God; that’s on them.
It’s time for Japan to stop reverting to type. It’s time to realize that freaking out and shutting out the outside world, then expecting the public to gaman no matter what mistakes the short-sighted bureaucrats make, is no longer viable public policy. Overcome the stupid national pride, and learn some lessons from how other countries manage crises.
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