Tokyo in the time of Coronavirus: 11 April 2020 (entry #1)

This is not the first day of the coronavirus meltdown, only the first day I’ve found the energy – mental and physical – to write about life during this global pandemic. It feels like we are in the middle of the middle of the pandemic, but of course that will only be knowable after the crisis has fully subsided.

From here in Tokyo, life continues, if not normally, at least without the same strict quarantine restrictions that have been implemented in much of the developed world. Until last week, Tokyo remained largely open for business (as long as you weren’t flying in from overseas). True, I’ve been working from home for over a month now, and all schools have been closed for several weeks, but restaurants, bars and shopping malls have all remained open and, in many cases, crowded. That is, until this past Tuesday when the Japanese leader Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency that is effective until May 6th. Bizarrely, the emergency declaration only gives local government authorities the ability to ask people to stay at home and avoid non-essential activities, while not actually providing any legal authority to punish people who ignore such requests. Judging by my own daily walks around town, certain businesses have closed down – like Starbucks and our local department store – but many others remain open and, in some cases, crowded with people.

Maybe one of the biggest differences between Japan and other parts of the world is that mask usage here has been nearly universal since the coronavirus outbreak emerged from Wuhan earlier this year. For February and March, I would guess that mask usage in Tokyo was around 70% (that’s a lot of people on the trains and just walking around wearing masks), but now I think that number has risen closer to 90%. People who do not wear masks are definitely the exception. Whether or not masks are effective in preventing the spread of the Coronavirus seems unclear, but if the official Japanese virus numbers can be trusted – and given the very limited testing being done here, there’s little reason to believe that they can – the widespread (and by all accounts proper) use of masks in Japan could be one reason that the virus has spread much more slowly here than in Europe and the US.

As one would expect given their high use, masks have been very hard to come by in Tokyo these last few months. Until the state of emergency, I usually did not wear a mask outside, as I only had a single option available to me, a 15 minute “steaming” mask that I had found abandoned in a store and was clearly not intended for outdoor use given that it looked quite ridiculous, what with its comically protruding center ridge and large ear flaps. However, this past Wednesday I happened to be walking by a pharmacy when I looked in and saw a crowd suddenly forming around a large plastic storage box that had – apparently apropos of nothing – been rolled out into the center of the store. I walked inside to see what the commotion was about and found that the container held individual boxes of face masks, 60 per box. I had arrived only 30 seconds after the container was rolled out, and I barely managed to grab one of the last boxes. I paid for the masks and left the store clutching the box like I fully expected someone to try and wrestle it from my grip at any moment. You would have thought that I had just discovered the last golden ticket, the way I practically ran home to tell my wife the good news. Anyway, we can now wear masks outside, and how fun it has become to pass judgment on anyone, especially another foreigner, who is not wearing a mask. They are jeopardizing our health! I think, with an indignation that feels hard won.

So, from our small but not tiny Tokyo apartment – where my wife and I are trying, with diminishing success, to not drive each other completely crazy – I will sign off on this first Coronavirus entry. Hope everyone is safe out there, wherever you’re weathering the storm.

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