March 15, 2020

Article at Washington Post

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Pandemic journal: Family life in Yokohama in the time of coronavirus

YOKOHAMA, Japan — Family life has been transformed in Japan since the coronavirus first took hold. Here's how our family — my wife Sarah, our daughter Molly and our dog Ziggy — coped these last two months, the changes and challenges, the disappointments and moments of respite, and finally a glimmer of hope.

Jan. 14. Sarah’s twin sister and her wife book their flights from New York to Tokyo for the Olympics this summer. Tickets have been like gold-dust, but we’ve been lucky. Can’t wait.

Japan announces that a Chinese man living in Yokohama has tested positive after returning from Wuhan. We live right on the edge of Asia’s biggest Chinatown: not sure where the man lives exactly, but it’s probably not far away.

Jan. 20. The streets of Chinatown are much quieter than they used to be. This is an area packed with restaurants and shops, and usually filled with Japanese visitors. The crowds have vanished.

Jan. 26. The route we normally take our dog Ziggy for a walk passes right through Chinatown. Sarah has already started taking him by another route. If I go through Chinatown, I tend to walk him down the middle of the road. The Chinese tour groups who usually flock to the restaurant selling shark fin soup have disappeared.

Feb. 5. Face masks and hand sanitizer have sold out. We order a pack of 60 masks from Amazon for 8,900 yen ($86), a very hefty markup.

Feb. 6. More Olympics tickets go on sale for U.S. residents. We’re starting to wonder if the games will go ahead. But we have to think positively. Maybe the virus will dissipate in Tokyo’s hot and humid summer.

Feb. 7. The huge cruise ship terminal in Yokohama stands empty, a victim of the epidemic. I take a taxi across the bay to where the Diamond Princess is docked. TV cameras and crews are lined up at one end of the dock watching infected passengers being evacuated from the quarantined ship by medics in hazmat suits.

Feb. 9. Stiff Little Fingers play a gig in Tokyo. In the crowd, plenty of energy and no coronavirus concerns. Later, I hear the aging punk rockers have canceled their forthcoming gig in Hong Kong. Seems a bit unnecessary.

Feb. 14. There’s a popular Chinese noodle restaurant just down the road. Usually there are lines outside. Today, no line, and half the tables are empty. Maybe we should actually give it a try.

Feb. 25. Molly is disappointed today. Her high school soccer tournament in March has been canceled. The big tournament in April involving teams from Japan and South Korea is still on, for now. It won’t be for long.

Feb. 27. Sarah messaged from the school where she teaches. There is talk of a run on toilet paper, so she wants me to go to the shop across the road to buy some. I tell her not to panic, the shelves are full. I buy some toilet paper, kitchen paper and tissue paper anyway, just one package of each. On the way home, a neighbor says “Stocking up?” I try to pretend this is just my regular shopping.

Both New Order and the Pixies have canceled their gigs in Tokyo. By now, this isn’t a surprise, but it’s still annoying.

Molly’s school sends out an email. “As of now, and in line with guidance from prefectural authorities and consultations with other international schools, we have no plans to close the school.” A temporary closure would be only considered if a student or member of staff, or a member of their family living in the same household “is officially confirmed to have contracted the COVID-19 Coronavirus, we would close school on a temporary basis.” Seems fair enough to me.

Within an hour, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe requests all schools across the country to close. Yokohama International School sends a follow-up email to say it will follow suit.

Feb. 28. Sarah messages me again. Teachers are talking of a run on toilet paper. Reluctantly, I stroll across to the local shop. The shelves that had been packed yesterday are now empty. I buy one of the last two packets of kitchen paper. Later, we learn the entire country has gone toilet paper crazy.

Feb. 29. Using our elbows to open the main doors, and our knuckles to call the elevator in our apartment block. Compulsively washing our hands all day long.

March 2. School is out. Sarah and Molly are at home. We’re trying not to step on each others’ toes, because I have a feeling this could last for months. Molly says she “hates online learning,” although she’s still able to see friends on evenings and weekends. At least Ziggy is happy to have the company.

March 4. Commuting into Tokyo for interviews with parents on the school closures. I thought I’d wear a face mask just to be on the safe side, for the very first time since I moved to Japan. It’s strangely reassuring, especially when everyone else has one on.

I get a seat, even on the way home (which is unusual). Some people are now working at home, but the carriage soon gets crowded. Not sure I understand why kids have to stay home while their parents are still commuting, especially since children seem largely immune.

March 5. Restaurants in Chinatown have received hate mail, calling Chinese people germs and garbage, and telling them to go home. There is an immediate backlash on social media. Locals flock to one of the most famous restaurants to show their support.

March 7. Toilet paper is back in the shops. For a few hours at least. Rice ran short for a while, and garlic disappeared for a couple of days. Good for warding off colds and flu?

March 8. Chinatown looks increasingly desolate. The noodle shop has put its shutters down and will be closed until March 16. Many other restaurants have also closed down — temporarily, one hopes. There are no more fortune tellers outside their shops looking for customers. I guess no one wants to know what’s coming next. Even the woman selling bags of roasted chestnuts has disappeared.

March 11. Still playing football (not the American kind) at the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club, but now players are joined by their children for a midweek late afternoon kickaround. The sun is shining, the sky is blue and for a couple of hours the virus seems a long way off.

The World Health Organization declares the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. We have to face up to facts: the Olympics is unlikely to be held this summer. I’m personally hoping for a one-year delay as the least bad option.

March 12. We were supposed to be traveling to Britain next week to look around universities with Molly, but this is not the best time to travel. Vacation canceled. At least the hotels are all refundable.

March 13. On hold to Expedia for three hours to cancel flights — the line goes dead. Repeat two more times. I try calling All Nippon Airlines. On hold for one hour — success. Flight fully refunded.

March 15. The sun is shining and people are outside. Chinatown is as busy as I have seen it in two months. The chestnut seller and fortune tellers are back. It feels good. Until I consult the NHK website: Japan just set a record daily high in new infections, with 63 fresh cases.