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Editorial: Coronavirus pandemic a time to lend a helping hand, not widen divisions

  • August 25, 2020
  • , The Mainichi
  • English Press

If people wash their hands properly, then the likelihood of novel coronavirus infections will drop. But there is something that lingers in people’s hearts that doesn’t wash away so easily: fear.


A comment in a video uploaded to YouTube by the Japanese Red Cross Society focuses on this emotion, pointing out that if fear spreads, then people will hurt each other and divisions will emerge.


The novel coronavirus pandemic has led to discrimination and prejudice and has created rifts in society, with no end to criticism of infected people and their families. Meanwhile the phenomenon of “mask police” who portray themselves as being in the right as they reproach people for not wearing masks continues even now.


Such actions do not stem merely from concerns about being infected. Due to calls to “stay home” and maintain “social distancing,” people’s connections with others have weakened. This is spurring divisions that have gradually isolated people.


A public awareness study conducted in Japan and overseas by members of Osaka University and other researchers provided interesting results. Some 400 to 500 people in each country were surveyed. As of March and April, around 11% of the respondents in Japan answered that if a person got infected, it was their own fault. This was far higher than in the United States, Britain, and Italy, where the corresponding figures for this response ranged from 1% to 2%.


It is important for each and every person to remain aware and take care not to spread the virus. But if people harbor such views to an excessive degree at a time when individuals are becoming more and more isolated, then people will end up blaming others more.


At the same time, it can be said that the results reflect the distortion in society that has existed since before the turmoil of COVID-19. For example, there has been a trend in Japan to cut off people in financially strained circumstances under the concept of “self-accountability.” This is far removed from an attitude of consideration for and solidarity with others. The values that expel LGBT people and other sexual minorities also remain deeply rooted in society. In order to curb divisions, it is important for political leaders to consider what kinds of messages they are delivering. But from politicians including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, we have hardly heard any messages in that vein that have struck a chord with members of the public.


Amid such circumstances, there have actually been significant moves in pursuit of solidarity. In the southwestern Japan city of Kitakyushu, the nonprofit organization Hoboku, which supports the homeless, launched a major crowdfunding campaign to support people who had lost their jobs and homes and couldn’t “stay home” as requested by the government. It also offered support for those who were unable to receive a special 100,000 yen (about $940) government handout to counter the financial strain caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic because they didn’t have a home address.


The organization called for people to support those in need “from home,” which they could do without leaving their own residences and without being in contact with others, and solicited donations. In the space of about three months, it collected around 150 million yen (about $1.41 million), far exceeding its target.


When society faces a crisis, there may be divisions, but unity also emerges as people try to lend others a helping hand. This is perhaps evident in the appreciation that began to be voiced toward medical workers and garbage collectors, and in the spread of moves to support local eateries and small theaters.


In this coronavirus age, we need to sustain such sentiments and rebuild connections between people.


Noteworthy are efforts that are underway in the city of Yokohama south of Tokyo — specifically, with the establishment of the “#Otagaihama” internet platform formed together by citizens groups, public bodies, companies and universities. The name is a play on the phrase “otagaisama,” which can be used to describe situations where people depend on or do the same for each other.


Those participating in the initiative share their experiences and ideas, and plan events based on dialogue through online conferences. It had been feared that citizens’ activities would stagnate amid the coronavirus pandemic, but on the contrary, people who had had no contact with each other previously have met online, leading to new opportunities to collaborate.


One such opportunity lies in a project to make and sell cloth masks that are sewn at home by housewives and the disabled. The masks are delivered to local stores that have registered to take part in the initiative, and then sold to the public. The proceeds have helped out stores that have seen their earnings fall as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Those who make the masks, meanwhile, are rewarded with food and other items purchased locally with a portion of the profits, thereby leading to a reduction of food waste. It is indeed an example of depending on each other.


Even after people move past the coronavirus pandemic, this network is likely to be useful. Hiroki Sugiura, one figure involved in establishing #Otagaihama, says, “People’s interest in the local region has increased, and I sense hope in the progression toward an inclusive society where people care for others.”


Those of us who have been going through the COVID-19 pandemic have learned that we cannot live without others’ support. Albert Camus’ 1947 novel “The Plague,” which became a bestseller this year, similarly conveys the importance of continuing to engrave into memory the friendship and love that people came to know through their battle with an infectious disease.


Just how much can altruism be spread as opposed to people merely looking out for themselves? The times may have changed, but the weight of this question remains unchanged.

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