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The streets in Ashiya, a small town bordering Kobe, are surprisingly quiet. “It is like New Year’s Day,” says a young mother wearing a mask. “This is to protect my daughter,” she explains as she points at her mask. “She is at home as her school is closed all week.” As the H1N1 flu is now spreading much faster as authorities had expected, more than 4000 schools were closed in Hyogo and Osaka prefectures. Many museums and companies followed suit, leaving streets and trains far more quiet than is usual for a week day.
In Kobe’s city center, the reaction to the flu’s arrival is frightfully clear. Some 80% of the people wear protective masks. At the few drugstores where masks have not yet sold out, long lines of people are waiting to buy them.
Police officers, railways employees, bank workers, people working in the food industry and supermarkets are all wearing masks. Even people who think the whole thing is an overreaction, can’t help but feel something akin to dread when walking Kobe’s streets.
That is one of the reasons that many don’t even bother. Trains—even during peak hours—have about half of the usual number of passengers. The effect on shops and businesses, already struggling with Japan’s worst post-war recession, is disastrous.
“Our sales have plunged by 60%,” says the owner of a flower shop. She tries to smile when she says this, but her worry is palpable. Even post offices report 30 to 40% fewer customers.
“I have run my shop for more than 30 years,” says Nobuko Hashitani, a charming owner of a handicraft shop in Kobe’s Higashi Nada ward where one of the schools with infected students is located, “but except for the earthquake of 1995 I have never seen so few customers. On Sunday, always a very busy day, we even closed a few hours earlier than usual.”
“I wonder how long this will last,” she sighs.
She may have to be extra-ordinarily patient. “As people other than high school students were confirmed infected, I’m afraid the situation has entered a phase of an epidemic,” said Chika Shirai, chief of the Kobe municipal government’s disease prevention and sanitation section according to a Yomiuri news report.