The chartered jet that took the Americans to California. Photo: Courtesy of Phil Courter

As hundreds of Americans and Canadians flew the coop – the quarantined cruise ship Diamond Princess – their departure seemed to be a signal for their Japanese hosts to notch up their own concerns about the coronavirus.

“From Tokyo to Wakayama to Okinawa, Japan on edge as COVID-19 spreads” was the headline on a Japan Times Story on Saturday.

Japan announced on Monday it would cancel a public gathering on February 23 to celebrate the birthday of new Emperor Naruhito, as fears grow over the spread of the new coronavirus in the country.

“In light of various situations, we have decided to cancel the visit by the general public to the palace for His Majesty’s birthday,” the imperial household agency said in a statement, a day after the government warned people to avoid crowds and “non-essential gatherings.”

“His Majesty’s appearance in the morning, as well as the public signing of the greeting book, will be cancelled.”

Meanwhile, local media reported that the amateur section of the Tokyo Marathon, scheduled for March 1, has also be axed.

At least 60 people in Japan have so far been diagnosed with the virus, with Health Minister Katsunobu Kato warning on Sunday the nation was “entering a new phase” of the outbreak.

14 with virus allowed to fly out

Actually, most cases of the disease in Japan – some 355 – were found on the ship, which continued to provide new cases until foreign governments got around to flying their citizens out early on Monday.

In fact, a further 14 people were found to have the virus but they were lucky to be allowed to board the charter jet to the US, albeit in a “specialized containment area” of the plane, AFP reported.

These individuals were moved in the most expeditious and safe manner to a specialized containment area on the evacuation aircraft to isolate them in accordance with standard protocols,” the State Department said. “During the flights, these individuals will continue to be isolated from the other passengers.”

More than 600 people are already in quarantine in the US, evacuated earlier from the virus epicenter in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday.

Among those leaving were novelist Gay Courter and documentary filmmaker Phil Courter, who had been providing Asia Times readers blow-by-blow accounts of shipboard life since shortly after they were put in quarantine. The couple relayed a few more photos before flying to California for another 14 days of quarantine, probably on an Air Force base.

In a brief email, Gay said the shuttle bus from the Yokohama docks to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport was “silent. No chatter. Clearing my throat sounds like thunder.”

On the shuttle bus, silence is golden. Photo: Courtesy Phil Courter
Not your typical pre-flight security check. Photo: Courtesy of Phil Courter
Quarantined passengers from the Diamond Princess board their aircraft for return to the United States. Photo: Phil Courter

As for the permanent population of Japan, if there is not (yet) a full-blown national panic, many people were settling into what they evidently expect to be a long, hard slog before things return to normal.

The government encouraged this, up to a point. Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told reporters: “We are seeing infection cases whose transmission routes we are unable to trace back,” he said. “We want to ask the public to avoid non-urgent, non-essential gatherings.

“I think it’s important that we exercise Japan’s collective strength.”

‘Weird indeed’

“This virus is very weird indeed,” a 72-year-old Tokyo woman who has retired from journalism said, “mainly because we don’t know much about it. As for me, I seem to wash my hands constantly. When I come home from shopping, the first thing I do is wash my hands very carefully – the way I never washed before. Because of my weak knees, I tend to grab the handrails of staircases outside. These days, I wear gloves or try not to touch the handrail. I was planning to visit my sister at a share house for the aged. But they are not receiving outside guests for a while, due to this virus scare.”

She had heard that telecom NTT, which has been planning to promote “tele-work” from home during the Olympics later this year to reduce overcrowding, had decided to start the promotion early, in an effort to keep people at home on account of the virus.

A Tokyo father of a four-year-old reported: “No sign of Kai’s nursery shutting down, nor do I hear of other schools shutting down at this point.” He added: “I haven’t heard of children being infected by this virus at this stage – perhaps their immune system prevents any symptoms from showing.”

A college professor in Nagoya – a “skeptic of government” who darkly speculates that “some people know more than we do, especially the Chinese and Japanese health officials” – got into the spirit of things and sent an email: “I am leaning to preparing an online three-week course to give my students the option of studying online at home” before the spring break.

“You’re a journalist,” he wrote. “I assume you are planning to get out of Japan while you can…. Can’t imagine Tokyo is a good place to be if this starts spreading.”

“If Iran had 300 passengers on the ship,” the imaginative professor remarked, the country “could repatriate them, give them new identities and then send them to the USA to travel around. It would be a cheap way to help them see the virgins [in heaven] without blowing themselves up.”

Although concern seems greater in Japan than before, evidently it’s not sufficient yet to produce such an impassioned spokesman as Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, who exhorted his US readers: “This is the time for a Manhattan Project, to put all public and private energy into vaccine and antiviral development, diagnostics and expanded hospital capabilities.”

But then the Japanese don’t have a leader like President Donald Trump to add to their concern instead of alleviating it.

“Trump this week proposed cutting US funding for the World Health Organization in half. He has also proposed a nearly 16% cut to the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] and a nearly 8% cut to the National Institutes of Health,” Milbank observed. “Maybe he’ll also endorse North Korea’s plan to fight the virus with burdock roots.”

  • with reporting by AFP

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