The covid-19 pandemic is dominating the lives and thoughts of people around the world at this point in time. Many other places in the world, particularly South Korea and China, seem to have gone through the worst of the crisis, but in Japan it appears as we are just now starting to feel the full force of it. In my last piece I suggested that Japan wasn't feeling the effects of the pandemic like other countries, and posited some reasons as to why this might be, but it seems now like that was overly optimistic. Infections here seem to be skyrocketing, though testing is still relatively selective.
Firstly let's talk about the things everyone should be aware of by now. The pandemic has been growing in Japan and medical institutions and starting to become overrun with patients. This is the “overshoot” the government warned of more than a week ago (that word is not generally used in English in the context it's being applied here, but still the meaning is graspable). Citizens, especially in Tokyo, are now called upon to do everything they can to help slow the pandemic. The prime minister has asked people to stay at home unless it's essential that they go out, and that's a very good idea. If you do need to go out please remember to avoid the “three Cs”: Avoid closed spaces; avoid crowded places; and avoid close contact with other people. These should all be second nature and commonsense by now.
In my last column I suggested that Japanese people paid attention to authority and their ability to follow instructions was a reason the pandemic was not as bad here. But this seems to be mistaken. Many people are heeding the prime minister’s request to stay in, but many are not. In my central Tokyo neighborhood on some days it seems like there is no pandemic at all. This is worrying. I cannot urge people enough to stay in the homes except when it is essential to go out. Tokyoites have not taken this advice to heart as much as residents of other major cities around the world, though in some the ‘stay-at-home’ mandate is law. In Japan the government says it cannot command people to remain home.
Now let's discuss other topics related to the pandemic that are still being researched. It has been suggested that the tuberculosis vaccine, or BCG vaccine, given from the 1950s (or in some cases the 1960s) onward in Japan (though it seems many people fell through the cracks and did not receive it) is protecting people from getting covid-19 (or possibly being infected with the novel covid-19 at all). This suggestion stems from observing the Iberian Peninsula in Europe. Spain and Portugal share a long border, and have cultural similarities. But the pandemic has hit Spain much harder than Portugal, with more infected and many more deaths. Researchers point to the fact that Portuguese people had the BCG vaccine as children while those in Spain did not. Whether this theory is really accurate or not no one knows. For support of the idea some medical professionals in Japan are pointing to poorer sections of Tokyo where the rates of illness are higher. They suggest that these people as children may have missed the BCG vaccine for economic or socio-political reasons. It's an interesting theory that bears research, and we can't tell if it has merit right now. For the time being people should not count on the BCG vaccine to protect them.