I’ll admit that in the early stages of the novel coronavirus outbreak that originated late last year in the Hubei province of China, I was not too concerned and felt quite safe in my small city in Japan. No one seemed worried, and it was business as usual for weeks. However, as infections began popping up in increasing numbers around the world, the looming threat became harder to ignore. On one sunny weekend visiting a long-lost relative in Yokohama, I was constantly reminded that somewhere in that beautiful bay, a quarantined cruise ship housing roughly 621 ill passengers floated uneasily in the waves. Now, I certainly don’t have the expertise to criticize how the situation was handled, but I do know from research that the method of containment was less than ideal for stopping the spread of infection. A few weeks into the quarantine, Japanese passengers who were deemed healthy departed the ship and returned home via various routes of public transportation. Some experts warned even those who tested negative for the virus and showed no symptoms could potentially spread COVID-19 before becoming sick days later due to the virus’s relatively long incubation period. This could rapidly accelerate the rate of new infections in Japan.
After receiving criticisms for Japan’s handling of the Diamond Princess incident, Prime Minister Abe announced on Thursday, February 27 that all elementary, junior, and high schools would be closed through early April to contain the outbreak and prevent children from becoming ill. Schools are indeed petri dishes for various germs and bugs, but this came to a shock to most of Japan because the novel coronavirus had not yet infected a large number of people and was contained to just a few prefectures. The decision would also make things difficult for working parents who would have to make speedy arrangements to provide care for their children on short notice. As an elementary school ALT, I witnessed the confusion and distress first hand when I stepped into the teacher’s room the next Friday morning. The phone was ringing constantly, and our principal called an emergency meeting to discuss how the situation would be handled. Three out of my four classes were canceled. I headed solemnly to first period English with my sixth graders for the last time. They were in tears, distraught because their graduation ceremony was to be significantly scaled back and there would be no official sixth-grade farewell party. It was the last day they’d really get to see their friends and teachers again before starting junior high school in April. These school ceremonies and events are an important part of Japanese culture, and celebrating the various milestones of childhood education is special for families and communities. Graduating junior and high school students would be affected as well. As my 12-year-old students sobbed silently, their teacher and I tried our best to make the morning lesson as fun and enjoyable as possible despite high emotions.
After class, I returned to my desk and responded to a few concerned friends and family members back home. The Niigata City ALT Line group chat dinged throughout the day with updates from various schools—graduation ceremonies canceled, classes finishing early, students cleaning out their belongings and hauling them home in oversized bags, frantic teacher meetings and a general sense of confusion. We speculated together when our Board of Education would inform ALTs of the decisions ahead to be made. Would we continue to work? And if so, would we work from our schools or from home? If no, would we still receive our salary or would we have to scrape through the month with no pay? At the end of the workday, we finally got some answers. Teachers would continue to work and report to school as normal until further notice. However, this drew some reasonable concerns. ALTs typically teach at more than one school. For example, I visit five schools per week. That means we have many more chances to come into contact with ill persons and spread infections over a larger area. Wouldn’t it make more sense for us to work from home or the Board of Education’s office in the city?
In healthy adults, the virus’s symptoms are less severe, and it seems to do the most damage when its hosts are members of vulnerable populations such as the elderly. As a result, those with milder symptoms more similar to a cold may not get tested or seek treatment and continue to work, spreading the virus. Because of this, teachers and ALTs who care for small children or their parents could unwillingly expose their less-protected loved ones to COVID-19. This mentality of work before health puts everyone at risk.
Japan is not the only country where sick employees must choose between their health and income. In the United States, multiple industries such as retail and food service do not provide their employees with paid sick leave. For these people, missing a week of work during the normal flu season could mean falling behind on bills or being unable to buy groceries and essential medications. Especially during this critical period of coronavirus uncertainty, all countries should be more willing to let those who are unwell rest without fear of losing their job or income. It’s important for our governments to do what they can to protect the most vulnerable, and that starts with taking better care of everyone.
Still, we waited for further instructions. On Saturday, news broke that the first confirmed infection had arrived in our city. Mask-wearing volunteers distributed flyers to commuters outside the main train station detailing that the newest victim was a 60-year-old Tokyo resident who was visiting Niigata when he came down with symptoms.
People seemed to vanish from the streets to escape crowds and head home. The weekend passed with more silence from our employers until an email arrived Sunday night with information regarding upcoming Japanese classes in the city. But on Monday afternoon, (as I wrote this blog post) we finally received some more finite information.
The email we received stated as follows:
“Please understand that you are employed by a municipal government office and that decisions generally aren’t made very quickly in government offices.
If any of you feel sick, or are worried that you might be sick, please use your paid leave (nenkyu) and go to the doctor right away.
If you no longer have paid leave days left to use, please take time off from work and go to a doctor right away. While at the doctor, please ask for a written notice (ishi no shindan) This will cost 5000 yen (about 48 USD). Once you have obtained a written notice from the doctor, you will be eligible to receive unpaid leave.
This may not be comforting to hear, and many of you may not want to pay 5,000 yen to receive unpaid leave, but this is the system that is currently in place and, even in these times of extreme caution, you are expected to abide by it.”
I’d like to make it clear I am not angry with my supervisors or fellow teachers (many of whom are sick and still at work today). They are just doing their job and trying to maintain order to the best of their ability. I recognize that we receive great benefits such as healthcare and a designated amount of paid leave per year, which is better than many companies. This is certainly a difficult and unpredictable situation to handle, and I’m sure everyone is doing their best to adapt. But I am still disappointed and angry at the system that prioritizes paperwork and policy over the health and well-being of its citizens and foreign workers. Many ALTs and teachers are out of paid leave until it resets April 1. Should any of us catch COVID-19, we will have to incur the costs of a glorified doctor’s note and treatment with a significantly reduced paycheck. While healthcare in Japan is quite affordable, missing two or more weeks’ worth of wages is not. I believe there are better solutions bureaucrats would prefer to pretend don’t exist.
Although I am sympathetic to the pressure placed on decision-makers in my local government, I don’t think it is right to force teachers and ALTs who contract COVID-19 to take unpaid leave during their recovery period. I do not think it is right to send people to school who do not need to be there. With no students to teach, part-time workers and ALTs could easily work from home or from the city office. Some people are taking paid leave now to avoid the situation altogether. But this is not an option for everyone. I used up the bulk of my paid leave when I contracted the flu in December. I stayed home to prevent spreading germs to children and other teachers. But no one could have predicted a dangerous new outbreak would occur this year alongside flu season. While I’m hopeful that diligent hand-washing and good hygiene practices will protect me, I must take responsibility for my safety and health. Due to my history of asthma and recurrent lung infections, the new virus could cause complications for me should I contract it. If conditions worsen in my area, I will request that we be allowed to work from home.
Until we reach that point, I’ll be going to work and preoccupying myself with lesson planning, studying Japanese, reading and writing in lieu of teaching. After work, I’ll try once again to stock up on a few essentials. Over the weekend, quite a few frantic shoppers depleted stores of face masks, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper. I’m down to my last two rolls, so I hope a shipment comes in soon!
As you take measures to protect yourself in Japan or elsewhere, what concerns do you have regarding this growing issue? Are we overreacting? How can we stop the spread of misinformation and fear? And how can we change practices regarding sick leave going forward? I’d love to hear your thoughts.