Front-line health care workers in Japan face discrimination over coronavirus

While medical workers in the United States and Europe have often been heralded as heroes in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, many nurses and doctors in Japan have faced discrimination and ostracism despite heightened social media efforts to recognize their contribution.

In an April survey conducted by the Japan Federation of Medical Worker’s Unions, 9.9 percent of its 152 offices across the country responded that medical workers in their jurisdictions had encountered discrimination or harassment due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Cases included being told by family members not to come home, being shunned even by staff from other wards and being subjected to abuse when making house calls.

A study also found that hospitals and their workers were blamed when coronavirus infections occurred there, resulting in the children of hospital staff being refused entry to kindergartens and other child care facilities or being pressured to stay away from school.

The Kobe City Medical Center General Hospital in Hyogo Prefecture, which had admitted a total of 96 coronavirus patients as of May 22 and seen 29 of its medical workers contract the virus, has released a report detailing how staff members and their families have been subject to discrimination.

The husband of a nurse at the hospital was told by his company not to come into the office should his wife continue working. He was effectively forced to choose between his wife quitting her job or quitting himself, according to the report.

Another nurse who was pregnant was denied a medical examination by a doctor at a different hospital, it said.

Crew members of a sightseeing boat signal ‘thank you’ off Kobe Port on May 15 to express their appreciation to medical workers battling the COVID-19 outbreak. | KYODO

Elsewhere, Kosui Tago, 27, a nurse at a hospital in Nagano Prefecture treating coronavirus patients, spoke of the discrimination his colleagues face.

The daughter of a nurse at an elementary school has become a victim of bullying, being nicknamed “corona-chan,” he said, while another nurse is now living apart from her family out of fear her son might get bullied at elementary school.

“I do understand the anxiety, but it is necessary for the people who discriminate to have a wider view,” he said. “I think we are not seeing a trend of us being treated as heroes like in other countries because in general, the Japanese like to stay low-key. I’m not working to be treated as a hero but to help the patients.”

Tago spends around six hours on average a day wearing protective gear and attending to patients. “Although the state of emergency has been lifted, we still have to be very careful. The gear is very stressful as we cannot eat or go to the toilet,” he said.

Similar experiences of discrimination reported by nurses continue to be shared on Twitter under a Japanese hashtag meaning “corona discrimination.”

In late April, a Twitter user who said she was a nurse posted that she had been told by a mother to refrain from going to a playground with her child.

The tweet attracted more than 2,000 comments, most of which were supportive of the nurse.

“I’m at a loss for words. Are they saying medical workers should only travel between their home and workplace?” one user wrote. Another said, “Medical workers are thanked and respected overseas. What happened to the Japanese people? Shameful.”

But while some consider such reactions to the coronavirus unwarranted, others have taken a more sympathetic view.