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’s 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.
When Arisa Kadono tested positive and was hospitalized in early April, she was only identified as a woman in her 20s in food business. Soon, friends let her know that groundless rumors were circulating: that the family-run bar she helps with was a hotbed of virus; that she had dined with a popular baseball player who was infected earlier but she has never met; that she was sneaking out of the hospital and spreading the virus.
“It was as if I was a criminal,” Kadono said in an interview from her home in Himeji, western Japan, after ending her three-week hospitalization.
Apart from a fever on the first day and a loss of smell, Kadono had no major symptoms though she repeatedly tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19. Her mother developed pneumonia and was briefly in intensive care at another hospital.
“There are many other people who also have faced discrimination and prejudice,” said Kadono, who decided to speak out on her own behalf and that of other COVID-19 survivors and their families. “I really want to change people’s tendency to blame those who get infected.”
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.