Today, on March 31, health officials in Chiba Prefecture, just outside of Tokyo, announced that there are now 93 officially recognized cases of COVID-19 linked to a care facility for people with mental disabilities. This large cluster was discovered after a worker there was confirmed as infected last Friday, March 27. The cases include residents and workers and their families. The numbers of confirmed infections in Japan remains relatively low—1,923 as of 14:06 today, not including cases on the cruise shop docked off of Yokohama—but the disease is finding some of society’s most vulnerable members. The largest cluster of infections in Tokyo, for example, is at Eiju General Hospital in Ueno: 30 cases, which include other patients and medical personnel.

As I watch how this unfolds in other nations, I see how care facilities and medical institutions are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks of disease. In Japan as well, we need to keep watch upon how this is playing out in such facilities and also in other places where residents have little control over their movements and live in close, enclosed spaces: prisons and migrant detention centers.

This pandemic comes on the heels of other natural disasters. People remain displaced by flooding from last October’s fierce typhoon. There are populations still housed in temporary housing in Kumamoto in the wake of a 2016 earthquake, and also in Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima, nine years after the devastation of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. It is hard for me to write that the nuclear disaster associated with the same date is nine years in the past, when the stricken nuclear power plant still struggles to grapple with radiation issues: contaminated water, and tons of radioactive sandbags.

Activists, journalists, and scholars working on the wake of disasters have also emphasized that communities heal through coming together physically. But now physical proximity is a risk. And maintaining physical distance is also a privilege.

Construction workers are still working outside. Part-time workers at grocery stores still ring up our goods. Daycares have in Japan have remained open this whole time, even when elementary, junior high, and high schools closed. Small children may not be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, but they may transmit it, and those who work with small children – and their families – are exposed to an incredible amount of risk. Have you ever seen how toddlers interact? Where they put their fingers? But what can you do with all those children if the daycares close and employers still demand work? In an economy with unequal employment benefits and salaries for men and women, and with skewed gendered social expectations about care work, who will usually end up staying home with children, perhaps at the expense of a paycheck, or even a job?

– 31 March 2020

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Chelsea Szendi Schieder is a historian of contemporary Japan and an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Economics at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, Japan. Her book, Co-Ed Revolution: The Female Student in the Japanese New Left, is forthcoming on Duke University Press.


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The Teach311 + COVID-19 Collective began in 2011 as a joint project of the Forum for the History of Science in Asia and the Society for the History of Technology Asia Network and is currently expanded in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science(Artifacts, Action, Knowledge) and Nanyang Technological University-Singapore.

Tokyo Notes [5] :: Chelsea Szendi Schieder (Japan)