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I wrote an article about the Japanese reaction to the H1N1 Flu for Dutch media. Hereby an English translation.
KOBE – “The Japanese reaction was excessive,” says Dr. Kazuhiko Machida, professor of Health Sciences at Waseda University in Tokyo. “That Japan reacted so completely different is because nobody here wants to be responsible in case somebody dies.”
The professor notices a series of problems. “The Japanese government checked people for fever on Japanese airplanes, but that barely has any meaning. They only found six and it cost a fortune.”
“There is a long incubation period, often some ten days, in which the flu does not manifest itself but the patient can infect others.” Machida is shocked by the fact that people were forcibly placed in quarantine. “That is acceptable if people have the bird flu and other dangerous diseases like cholera and ebola, but now it was even done with people of whom it was unknown if they were infected. Both the Japanese and Chinese governments have made a great error in doing so. Around May 11 it was already clear that this virus usually generates a mild flu. At that time Japan should have discontinued quarantining people. Additionally, this flu can be treated, so quarantine was not at all necessary.”
Dr. Kentaro Iwata, professor at Kobe University and one of four special advisors to the Japanese Minister of Health disagrees with Machida. “The control and quarantine gave Japan time to prepare for a domestic outbreak, which subsequently did occur.” But he accedes that Japan put too many resources into the quarantine program.
Machida sees quarantining people as a violation of human rights. Like what happened until 1996, when many thousands of Hansen’s Disease patients were forced to live in isolation. In spite of an apology by then Prime Minister Koizumi, Japanese Hansen’s Disease patients still experience much discrimination today. It therefore surprises the professor that no discussion was started about the quarantine program. “The news media accepted it as if it was a matter of course.” Machida also questions the closing of 4,000 schools in the Kobe-Osaka region. “Is it really necessary to close schools that have no patients?” he wonders.
On this point, Iwata also disagrees with Machida. “Because geography and culture in Japan are different from those in North America, the virus might behave differently here. It is better to over-react than to have insufficient measures.”
The closing of the schools brought however many social problems. Working mothers for example were forced to take days off from work. It also created an image that the situation was extremely serious. This image was strengthened when government workers, TV reporters and employees of large companies were made to wear masks. “Japanese have a habit of doing what others do,” says Masaharu Goto, a Kobe based non-fiction writer who has won several important awards. “So when enough people wore those masks, everybody started to wear them.”
According to Goto, the Japanese media misused such images to fan the fear. He is critical about the reporting. “Too much focused on sensation and too little analysis. There were too few journalists who researched what kind of flu this was.”
“The reporting was extremely one-sided,” says Akira Yoshida, head of the Tourism Office of the Japanese Prefecture of Hyogo. “It looked like if you entered Kobe, you would not get out alive.” Yoshida had to helplessly watch how tourism in his prefecture collapsed. “About 90 percent of hotel reservations were cancelled,” he says. “That even happened at hotels in cities far removed from Kobe.”
Satoru Ohmuta, a top man with the Osaka news center of Mainichi Broadcasting Systems (MBS) however thinks that the Japanese media have done good work. “I don’t think that we have made mistakes in our reporting,” he says with conviction. “I don’t believe that it is right to scare people, but this was a new disease and now there is a better awareness of how dangerous a new flu virus can be.”
An almost empty Shinkansen car on the way from Osaka to Tokyo at the height of the Mexican Flu scare. Usually these carriages are very crowded.