Well, that was a full month, wasn’t it? April of 2020 was a bitch. My experience with the virus was a mental marathon that I would never forget. To my knowledge I never contracted the virus, but I experienced it twice, in a way, as I lived simultaneously in two very different worlds.
Either way it was no easy trick to maintain mental health during a global pandemic, especially considering our warped means of acquiring truth.
I was never too concerned with getting the virus myself. I may have been high risk to get it, but throughout most of this thing I maintained the audacity to believe I was low risk to die from it. “But what if?” the world whispered a million times from January until now. And therein lay the basis of the great mental challenge everyone faced.
How could I manage the influx of panic from others around me, while grasping for ways to determine whether they or I had gone insane? Of course, thinking too much about the virus would not cause infection, but it could very well cause someone to lose their mind.
From the beginning, my goal with this thing was to apply the right amount of self-preserving negative emotion (fear, worry, anger, or whatever) to the problem at hand. In my professional life I specialized in automation and efficiency, applying the right amount of resources to get the job done. It wasn’t like I had a whole lot of energy to spare anyway, with a busy career and a hectic family life at home.
In the Buddhist tradition there was the “Hear no evil, see no evil” proverb, the gist of which was to avoid unnecessary evil thoughts. This was exactly what I strove to do. There was a fine line between taking something too seriously and not taking it seriously enough. A lack of seriousness could result in physical harm, even death, while too much seriousness could affect mental health (which could in turn have a very real effect on physical health). But what was the right amount of mental energy devoted to this virus? Nobody knew. Or rather, it was too difficult to discern, with every shred of American reality filtered through the carnival fun house of a polarized press. Depending on the source, the virus was Reality One (no big deal), or Reality Two (the end of the world). Of course, as usual, neither of these realities were all true, but what was? One thing that was certain from the beginning: there was a lot of bullshit flying around.
On any given day, most worries turned out to be pointless. There was a famous study in psychology that concluded over ninety percent of energy devoted to negative emotions was a total waste. Either the object of our worry never came to pass, or it ended up being much less harmful than we had imagined. I continually reminded myself: “don’t believe everything you think,” because the stories about myself that spun through my mind were usually false. Things were always much better than they seemed.
At first glance, the “hear no evil, see no evil” proverb may have seemed like superstitious woo, but it was true that in some ways sickness began in the mind.
What was my unique experience with the virus, and why did it matter? I saw firsthand how two very different countries handled this thing, and through this comparison some truths were revealed. The virus may have been the biggest news story of the century so far, but to me the even bigger story was what the virus exposed. From afar, America seemed fragile, fragmented, at war with itself.
Japan, for all its many faults, handled this thing pretty well. My home life was in Japan. For me this was Reality One.
Reality Two was work. I commuted every weekday to a gated American community on Tokyo Bay. It was “gated” in the sense that it was surrounded by barbed wire, concrete and guns: the former home of the Japanese Imperial Navy, now headquarters to U.S. Seventh Fleet.
In Reality One, my home life throughout this thing was better than ever. I was lucky to be married to a beautiful, good-spirited woman who maintained a positive approach to life. She ran the household, playing the role of traditional housewife of a bygone era, homeschooling our kids (in two languages, no less).
We were never “locked down” in the Chinese or Italian or American approach to dealing with this thing, nor were any other Japanese. We were part of a close-knit community of family and friends that extended out to a couple hundred people or more, very few of whom would practice any real social distancing.
Japan confirmed its first cases of the virus in early January, and for a month afterwards everyone was keeping an eye on news reports. A few people in our town got it. There was an outbreak originating at a hot yoga studio down the street (appropriately named “LAVA,” which the locals pronounced “RAVA”), an event that made regional news because it was across the street from city hall. Oh dear! RAVA was also on the same corner as the convenience store where I stopped every morning on my walk to the station, and very close to the little café our friends owned. I would continue frequenting both locations with increased vigor as the weeks rolled on, with the aim of supporting local businesses. (This would turn out to be unnecessary, as the café experienced a surge of business from take-out, and the convenience store got more business from people working from home.)
There were a couple other local cases early on, but then things died down. Everyone more or less forgot about the virus until late March, when the U.S. was in full panic mode.
My Own Sickness of the Mind
I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t so concerned with getting the virus. This was true, but not because I didn’t believe there was no risk. While America fought its bipolar insanity, I struggled with my own.
Things were good at home in Reality One. I was a hero to my family. For ten years I had worked in a foreign land to support our household in a beautiful, historic beach community, allowing my wife to meet her goal of immersing our kids in the language and culture of her country. I was home every night for dinner and spent evenings with the family. On weekends we went hiking, attended school events, or went to the beach. Not only had we prospered, but I had saved a substantial amount for retirement and had stashed away enough cash to buy a house in the States. I had published a novel, an accomplishment I’d take to the grave. Everyone in my family was healthy and strong. There was laughter around our house. Looking at things on a statistical scale, I (the high school loser) had never carried any debt, and had somehow risen to the top five percent of household net worth in America, top two percent in Japan, and top tenth of one percent in the world.
In Reality Two, my professional life, I was exhausted and bored. Despite all my amazing accomplishments, I had a cruel narrative of my own that wouldn’t stop spinning through my head: the story of how I was still a slacker who had never amounted to much.
For the better part of three decades I had been working Monday through Friday, averaging fifty hours or more per week. I didn’t recall a single Sunday night in those fifteen hundred or so weeks when I had looked forward to Monday morning at work. For sure there had been days that I looked forward to waking up to work on my own creative projects. But like many people, since high school I had never possessed the wherewithal, imagination (or whatever was needed) to match my natural talents to the needs of the economic machine.
So I didn’t fear getting the virus because anything that interrupted the endless cascade of workweeks of commuting and existing in a physical space seemed like a sweet oasis, even if it meant getting sick and risking death.
This was my own sickness of the mind, and it was on me to make it better for everyone concerned. In mid-2019 I started looking for a new job, one that would take me and my foreign-born family to the States. But there was one question holding me back: did I really want a job? Because really, who did? Of those tens of millions of Americans who would be laid off because of this virus, many would miss being useful, social, productive, and economically viable; but how many would miss their actual jobs?
I dreamed of doing some low-pay, part-time work that interested me. I loved to learn. But there was the great American slave-driver, health insurance, which would restrict me to the all-encompassing, full-time work week, the inevitable corporate job. Self-pay health insurance in America was outrageously expensive, likely the biggest expense a household could have, and so on.
This was a snapshot of my own personal derangement during this time.
Reality One (Continued)
“Is this an allergic reaction to cedar pollen, or do I have five days to live?”
In the first week of February, a few thousand people aboard the cruise ship Diamond Princess were quarantined at Yokohama. At work, I could see the ship with a pair of binoculars from across Tokyo Bay.
Later that week I was on a call with some people from the States (a job interview that I hoped would bring me home), at the conclusion of which they joked, “stay away from that cruise ship over there!” I had driven past the ship a couple of times, like anyone else who had crossed the Yokohama Bay Bridge. Later I made the comment to my wife: “America’s not going to handle this well.” For America, the problem was still “over there,” but for us things were already heating up.
Hokkaido was a natural place for a virus outbreak. We had been skiing there the previous year, and it had seemed that at least half the guests at the Niseko Hilton were Chinese.
A friend of ours went home to Hokkaido during this time, taking advantage of the cheap flights and the deserted ski slopes. This was in line with her character, and we thought it commendable and brave, a display of mental fortitude that would become increasingly rare.
Our family was scheduled to go on our own ski trip to central Japan with another family at around this time, but the other family cancelled on advice of the elderly grandfather enforcing Japanese group-think compliance, in accordance to global health warnings that were starting to come down. I was relieved at the cancellation, not so much because I was concerned about the virus (as stated above), but because it just felt like the right thing to do.
We had also purchased tickets to fly to Hawaii at the end of March for my wife’s much-anticipated fortieth birthday, but of course this would never come to pass.
The second week of February was always my least favorite time of the year, as that was when the seasonal allergy season began. If I was a practicing Catholic I would’ve received an exemption from Lent, because dealing with the allergy season was more than enough suffering, a slow torture that lasted months. In the year 2020 this meant that I had almost all the symptoms of the terrible virus, all the time: congestion, sneezing, scratchy throat, body chills, burning eyes, fatigue. For the first week of this nonsense I woke every morning wondering “Is this an allergic reaction to cedar pollen, or do I have five days to live?” This led to my first attempt at addressing the mental game of the virus, because one could only live in fear for so long. Meditation helped control my thoughts, or at least make me aware of them; but it was a constant effort that I never completely won.
Of course it also so happened that I had major dental surgery in this week, having a steel post drilled into my jaw for an implant later on.
In the final week of February the Japanese government closed all schools nationwide with a resounding gong. This may have been the biggest shock we experienced in Reality One. All classes and graduation ceremonies were cancelled or postponed. (The Japanese school year ended in April, so effectively the government was giving kids an extra-long spring break that would eventually extend into the summer. This turned out to be the best year ever for kids. For moms, not so much.)
Early on, and even months later, Japan’s strategy to combat the pandemic seemed to be “no tests, no cases,” like the proverbial monkey covering his eyes. Much of this was focused on trying to keep the 2020 Tokyo Olympics alive. But curiously, the Olympics seemed to be under assault from as early as January, when there were a string of news articles critical of the decision to hold the Olympics due to risk of radiation (the real risk was zero, but any mention of the word “radiation” made the perception of risk very high). There was continued pressure from one particular Japanese news source to curtail or contain Olympic events, until finally they hit pay dirt with the virus, and the rest was history. This would probably be forgotten in time, but it was weird witnessing increased criticism of the Olympics, which of course was more of an economic event than anything else. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but it was noteworthy indeed.
The Japanese group-think efforts to combat the virus were at times unintentionally adorable and even downright illogical, with the end result being inexplicable success.
Japanese wore masks anyway in February due to the vicious combination of seasonal allergies and the regular flu, but it was funny to see how many only put the mask over their mouth and not their nose. Some pulled their mask down all the way to smoke! Every day, the train was filled with commuters with nervous, narrow eyes peering above tightly-fitted masks, grabbing the guardrail that scores of other people had grabbed with their bare hands. Did they not realize viruses were also spread by touch? Families walked down the street, half wearing masks, half not. Parents wore masks while their kids played without masks in the park. Didn’t they realize it was an all or nothing thing?
For most Japanese the masks were a compliance thing. In group-think societies everyone did the same thing. The rare individual who assessed her personal risk to be low wore a mask anyway, as a symbol of her support. This compliance, if anything, probably saved the country’s ass. If you asked the typical Japanese why she was still wearing a mask in May she would probably be confused. “This is what we do.” The Japanese would keep wearing masks generation after generation for the next thousand years without question, until some official word came down to take them off. They’d all wear Santa Claus caps forever if that was what it took. If anyone wanted to understand Japan in five words, it was “This is what we do.”
To sum up the first half of my bipolar experience with the virus, the effect on my daily life was close to zero. There may have been some travel advisories and some restrictions on movement throughout the country (that amounted to no more than a suggestion), but these things went unnoticed by me, as I never went anywhere besides work and home. Despite the jolt of school closures, the cancellation of the Olympics, and the usual fierce allergy season, the mood from our corner of Japan was very good.
The setting for the other half of my experience with this virus was “work,” a building in the gated American military community on Tokyo Bay. (Although, as I noted in several other essays, I had never considered work to be a place.)
As someone who had worked effectively for ten years as part of a remote, virtual team, this was something I could never forget. In fact it made all the inefficiencies of being in an office all the more obvious, especially in a government office, where I was a private sector contractor paid to do the actual work of those who slept at their desks.
By the second week of March the U.S. seemed to finally grasp the idea that the virus was an actual thing, even though Japan had been dealing with it for six weeks. For me this was where the narrative got weird, tragic, and bizarre, because in one half of my existence, Reality One, if “felt” like the virus was done. Later stats would prove this to be true. But in America (and by extension my work life), things were just heating up. As I had predicted, it didn’t go well. America was already so polarized, stressed out, depressed and psychologically fragile that any bit of bad news was going to cause Lady Liberty to snap like a dry twig. In Japan, news of the virus was reported with a barely audible exhale that Japanese do right before they’re about to say something disagreeable or unpleasant.
In extreme contrast, the news of the virus broke in America with the madness and fury of a pro wrestler amped on steroids and cocaine, neck veins bulging, eyes popping out, blood pressure supernaturally high, foam shooting from his mouth as the sound of a fog horn erupted from his vocal cords. It was the most hideous sight in the world, but impossible to not watch. Seeing this, Lady Liberty dropped a deus and ripped out the last remaining shred of her hair.
In the third week of March I had two promising, possibly final interviews with a couple organizations that could deliver me and my family back to the States. As if the virus hysteria wasn’t bad enough, a major earthquake struck the location of the interviewers (Salt Lake City), and both orgs put the jobs permanently on hold. Later the postings would be cancelled. It seemed I’d be stuck with my current employment situation in Japan for a while, if not for years.
Meanwhile, the virus hysteria reached alarming levels at my work location of Little America on Tokyo Bay, even though my home life remained normal as could be.
To my surprise, a follow-up appointment for my dental surgery was cancelled. What was going on? This was a U.S. panic we were experiencing, not Japanese! I came to find out that my Japanese dentist had closed on advice of the American Dental Association (ADA), as many of her customers were from the U.S. Navy base.
For a couple of weeks the hysteria on the base seemed to be purely a reaction to what was happening in the States, totally out of whack with what was actually happening in Japan. Then there came actual risk.
First there was the well-publicized virus outbreak on the USS Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier returning to Guam from Viet Nam. Hundreds of sailors were infected. A commanding officer got fired. The Secretary of Navy resigned.
Then, close to home, it was announced that a sailor had returned from the U.S. to Japan on March 15th to the USS Reagan, an aircraft carrier parked a few hundred meters from where I worked. Ten days into quarantine the sailor had gotten sick, testing positive for the virus. There were over four thousand plus sailors on the Reagan, all living in packed living conditions, breathing the same air, touching the same surfaces every day. For a week or more, all of these thousands of sailors had been moving about freely on the base where I worked. By the second week of April there was a confirmed outbreak on the ship – and perhaps all over the base, in my office and everywhere else. Who knew? In typical military fashion, there was zero transparency about what was going on, or how serious the situation had become, which made the panic even worse. If the pro wrestler with the fog horn voice of doom could get any louder, it just had.
This meant extra stress at work, as we were part of the overall effort to keep these carriers operational in the Pacific. From a global political standpoint, this left East Asia unguarded in the seas, with an emboldened Chinese carrier fleet sailing unopposed between Japan and Taiwan. China was a hungry Kung Fu Panda, and Taiwan was a delicious, steamy dumpling, just out of reach. In terms of the virus, Taiwan had disbelieved the WHO’s (China’s) advice from the beginning, and, along with Singapore and a few other East Asian hot-spots, had conquered this thing early on. Part of the reason for Taiwan’s continued independence was diplomacy, but the U.S. Seventh Fleet was a powerful symbol, whose mission was to back up the talk.
With both Far East carrier fleets down due to the virus outbreak, the alert level reached a fevered pitch. Extreme lock-down measures were enforced on the base.
Combat readiness was one thing, but many of the measures made no sense. It was almost like they had to maintain a level of stress and inconvenience, for lack of anything else to do.
In the spirit of taking this thing seriously, I was asked by my employer to continue maximizing my exposure to the virus by trudging from my peaceful, disease-free home to the place where I was required to situate my physical meat mass in exchange for money, taking trains used by thousands of people each day, commuting to a virus hot spot where everyone had an elevated sense of fear – all after having clearly demonstrated my ability to connect and fulfill my responsibilities from home. It was a classic “hurry up and wait” situation, except for me it was “shelter in place and come to work”.
It had always seemed like a huge chunk of my job was to endure massive volumes of ridiculous bullshit, but now the bullshit had reached heights I had never before seen.
At first all this was infuriating and demoralizing, but I would come to appreciate many of the end results. Crew members were confined to ships. “Non-essential” staff (redundant government bloat that comprised eighty percent of my organization) were told to stay home. With all those loud-mouthed fake job holders out of the office, I could finally get some work done.
As someone who was told to shelter in place without being given the option to do so, my last remaining challenge during this thing became maintaining my psychological well-being in the face of other people’s fear.
It sucked, but what were my options? I could quit, but then what? Join the muddled mass of forty million Americans unemployed? Living the life of a creative person was the tempting, “I’ll be there one day” daydream, like Maximus in the movie Gladiator, running his hands over fields of golden wheat on the farm he’d never see again.
No, quitting was not an option. There was no Plan B. It was time to get tough. I made a second effort to double-down on the mental game, fully accepting my fate. Going forward I had a three-prong approach to maintaining my mental health.
A) I took reasonable precautions, washing hands, wearing a mask in crowded places like the train.
B) I faced my own mortality. This sounded pretty deep, but early on I accepted that this could be how I exited the world. I got all the paperwork together, the will, passwords, access to bank accounts for my wife. I thought a lot about maintaining dignity and grace in the face of danger.
My seventy-nine year-old dad worked as a supervisor at a Veterans’ Administration (VA) hospital in the American West. If he had one talent in life it was making other people feel good about themselves. His positivity was dauntless, at times even absurd. But it served him and everyone around him well. Things got slow around the hospital where he worked when the virus peaked, as non-essential appointments had been cancelled, and they never saw the surge of patients they had expected. Even so, this was how he chose to face danger, and by extension, death.
The American Panic
The third prong of my strategy to maintain mental health during this thing was to encourage others at work. There were very vocal people around me whose brains were securely tethered to social media and other sources of mind poison, and their fear was spreading unchecked. It wasn’t just the virus that was contagious; thoughts were contagious, too.
Encouraging people was a delicate task. Sometimes it took the form of calling out bullshit, but nobody liked to be told their fear wasn’t justified. It was the same thing as being told you’re a coward, or insane. For much of the month of April I dealt with a bit of both. Even considering the uncertain situation around my worksite, the American approach to this thing seemed way out of whack.
Beginning in March there were constant rumblings about how bad things were getting, lots of what-if’s, and “it’s worse than you think”. People became obsessed with numbers: number of cases, number of tests, number of deaths. Early on I decided that numbers were useless when it came to assessing personal risk. Most of the numbers were inaccurate or misleading anyway. Plus, we human beings were incapable of processing even the most accurate numbers when fear and self-preservation were involved.
In mid-April someone at work told me with a shaky voice that America had half a million dead already, and there would be millions more. A quick check at a more reliable source online set this guy straight.
The crew of the USS Reagan was devastated, the ship incapacitated for months, someone else predicted.
Another office story: “all you have to do is show a mother who has lost five children. FIVE! And you know how serious this thing is!” This guy was so emotional that I wasn’t sure whether to shit my pants or burst out laughing. Afterwards I frantically searched online for this story but couldn’t find anything. I had heard the virus didn’t affect children as much, if at all. But who knew?
On another occasion I overheard someone say that Tom Hanks had tested positive for the virus. The news was delivered in a quiet, somber tone, as if Hanks had just died. I reminded this person that getting the virus did not equal automatic death, even for someone over the venerable age of sixty.
In another discussion some jackass asked how positive my attitude be when I held my dead child in my arms. This was about as worse as things got. I let it slide.
To add to the mental challenge of encouraging (or confronting) others there was the never-ending “poor me” voice in my head, that sickness of my own mind, whining about the unnecessary psychological suffering I endured. Why was I there? What was the meaning of all this? At home with my family I would’ve never had to deal with this kind of bullshit. Having worked from home for a decade, it was impossible to ignore the stupidity of a physical presence requirement for my work. I had already proven my ability to fulfill all of my obligations of my current employment situation by working remotely. If the virus was an actual risk then why was I being asked to put the health of my family and community in danger, for no reason at all? Now, forced to interact with fearful people whose minds were securely tethered to the fear-mongering news outlets from the other side of the world, every week became a battle for my own sanity in which I was forced to defend my positive stance.
I had a sense that everything would be okay despite the non-stop negativity around me at work, but still it was just a sense. Could I back up my positivity with facts? Every day I walked down to the USS Reagan, looking for signs that it was getting under way. Under normal conditions I questioned the usefulness of an aircraft carrier in modern times. If things ever got really serious the ship could be taken out in one second with a single tactical nuke. The annual maintenance cost of a single carrier fleet probably could’ve paid college tuition for every American student for a year, and America had eleven fleets. On the other hand, there were thousands of people aboard the Reagan, and I wished them all the best. They had been originally scheduled to deploy at month end, but with the virus outbreak this date seemed out of reach. Still, I checked the ship every day for signs they were leaving. Their on-time departure would be a vindication of my faith.
In an age when the sum of all human knowledge was available to everyone, it was impossible to know anything for sure.
It was one thing to have faith, but how did I know I wasn’t a fool? There were a few news stories on virus-doubters who were now dead, Dead, DEAD, all because they had been virus heretics. They had disbelieved the danger, and they had paid the ultimate price. There was the implied message that “this can happen to you, too, man, so watch your step!”
“Yeah, but I’m not a virus doubter, I just…”
“Shut up. You either believe in the danger or you don’t. Do you want to die? Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
This was how it went with all information about the virus. Was it really a yes or no question? I wanted accurate information, but who could I trust?
Even the official health agencies got this thing wrong from the beginning, at first downplaying the seriousness. The CDC advised that people could avoid wearing masks. We got a good laugh out of this at work. The Japanese wore masks during this season, even in the best of times. A couple weeks later the word was: “Wear masks! Wear masks!”
In an attempt to justify my absurd optimism I turned to the most horrible institution known to humanity: American news. The quality of American news media had been spiraling into oblivion for a couple of decades, starting with cable news. It got considerably worse after 2009, when Facebook implemented the “like” button. This single seemingly innocent feature had transformed the minds of hundreds of millions of people, so that everyone now thought of everything in binary ways. The intentionally addictive nature of the platform led to Facebook dominating the way hundreds of millions of people saw the world. Every issue was either this or that, thumbs up or thumbs down.
Most of journalism had been reduced to click-bait opinion pieces. As WIRED magazine put it, all journalists were now sharecroppers on the Facebook farm. Facebook had completed the bipolar insanity begun in the previous decades. Even in the best of conditions American news was too nauseating to behold. Now, with the virus, it was off the hook.
Ideally, I liked to imagine my mind as an exclusive club into which only the purest and most vetted ideas were allowed entry, but of course this was impossible when it came to world events. It went without saying that I abstained from all forms of social media. I was more likely to drink a glass of diarrhea than use Twitter or Facebook. As for Big Media, I considered most of the major outlets to be too biased to take seriously, but I had to start somewhere.
I was very careful to keep my research well-rounded, but there were always two sides. Add a global pandemic and economic collapse to an election year, and the result was a shit storm unmatched.
Getting accurate information was like being a kid in a bitter custody battle between a schizophrenic mom and an overbearing dad. Both parents twisted the truth around, just to get you on their side.
With the exception of one journalist, Fox News was more or less a sounding board for whatever crazy / crazy-sounding thought that shot through the mind of the POTUS (to be fair, not all crazy-sounding thoughts were actually crazy), while the other side (i.e., practically every news organization that was not Fox), reacted (OUTRAGED!), fact-checked, decried.
CNN had seemed weak, biased, and unscrupulous for a couple of decades. MSNBC was the Anti-Fox, propaganda wing of the Democratic National Party, maybe even the CPC.
Twenty years prior I might have trusted the New York Times for unbiased, quality reporting. They still had talented, insightful writers, but after 2016 they had become the anti-POTUS paper, every story slanted toward dethroning the king. I didn’t blame them. The POTUS had always been the villain New Yorkers loved to hate, and in general he wasn’t easy to like. But in order to combat the POTUS, it was necessary for the Gray Lady to don a cheap spandex suit and get down and dirty with the king in a prime time wrestling spectacle from which no one walked away clean.
With the virus, the New York Times became doubly unhelpful, as they portrayed the worst possible impact, both as a way of hurting the POTUS and because they were experiencing the worst possible impact first hand. The NYT would have better served a local readership during the virus outbreak. Outside New York metro, hospitals weren’t getting pounded, morticians weren’t making rounds through neighborhoods yelling “bring out your dead”.
One of my favorite pod-casters, someone who I had held my highest respect for his objectivity and intellect over the years, declared that it was better to fear-monger the hell out of this virus for the purpose of getting the POTUS out of office, especially considering the opposition was weak. I was alarmed by this declaration on a couple of levels. If this was the Left’s strategy then it seemed risky. Would those forty million unemployed Americans blame their plight on the POTUS who was trying to “re-open” the country and put them back to work?
In addition to the political motives there was also the usual fear-mongering for the purpose of selling mouse-clicks or papers. Some were hilarious. The Sun (UK) had a graphic of the US titled “virus deaths per state,” with a label for each state on the map, so that the word “DEATH” appeared in bold caps fifty or more times, a graphic of DEATH. The only thing missing was the death metal guitar solo.
Perhaps this whole media mess was unavoidable, a tragic evolution of communication during our times. In an age when the sum of all human knowledge was available to everyone, it was impossible to know anything for sure. For someone like me who was just trying to get the straight scoop on what was happening with the virus, news wasn’t much help at all. In the end I stuck with what the CDC was saying, and seasoned my thoughts with a variety of podcasts and positive story opinion pieces to keep hope alive.
I wanted to remain positive for the purpose of keeping my mental space clean at work and I wanted all of us to get through this thing okay. So I continued encouraging others and dispelling pointless panic when it raised its stupid head.
In a bizarre twist of philosophical orientation I became the recipient of criticism from friends and family, accused of being insensitive, ignorant, naïve.
It sure didn’t help that initial advice from the POTUS had been dangerously optimistic, or that the line had been drawn between continuing to enforce a lockdown in America and opening the country back up. Now even optimism had been politicized, and I was on the “wrong side”. I had taken the same attitude with the Swine Flu back whenever that had been. I couldn’t even remember who was president at the time. Why did it matter? I didn’t have a side. I just called it like I saw it, and from my point of view things weren’t that bad.
In the month of April it seemed like Japan began copying what America was doing, enforcing soft lock-downs (in real effect, nothing), with no hard evidence that things were getting worse than they were in February. Many people worked from home. As a symbolic show of support everyone wore masks outside.
In our city there were daily announcements from the mayor, speaking through loudspeakers mounted on telephone poles in every neighborhood. As far as I knew these public announcement systems existed in every city in Japan. The up side to them was emergency preparedness, like in the case of a tsunami or typhoon. At 5 PM every day a chime reminded children when to return home for dinner. A couple times per month the community was alerted that an old person with dementia had escaped her care-giving captors and was roaming the streets, lost. If anyone saw her, they were to call city hall. There was always a follow-up announcement to let everyone know she had captured and returned to old folks’ jail.
Despite the occasional usefulness of the announcement system, it felt very much like Big Brother yelling into our house. In April they began announcing news about the virus, as if there was anyone who didn’t already know about it. In our city the messages were vague, like “don’t go out unless you have to, and please take care”. This was very annoying to all the moms who had to stay home with kids. One day our four-year-old asked, “When is that guy going to shut up and give us some ice cream?” It was amusing to imagine all the twelve-gauge buckshot that would be blasted into these loudspeakers if the system had been implemented in the States. This was a key difference between the U.S. and Japan.
All the small businesses in our town remained open except for Starbucks and Patagonia, who were apparently abiding by American lock-down rules. A friend of mine worked for Patagonia. My envy spiked to new heights when he said that Patagonia was paying all its employees to stay home.
The MacDonald’s and KFC near the station remained open for take-out only. Funny, the KFC Colonel Sanders sign in front of the store held a sign that pleaded its customers “Stay Home,” while inside the empty store bored employees pleaded for customers to come in and order take-out food. Every restaurant, hair salon, and pet shop. Except for Starbucks and Patagonia, no businesses closed.
Some of our Japanese neighbors enforced “shelter in place” on themselves, but it was never mandatory in our prefecture or anywhere else in the country. The so-called state of emergency was whispered in a practically inaudible voice. In theory people weren’t supposed to move about, but what were the police to do? Would they form an economic analysis on every person to determine whether their actions were essential or not? A couple moms in our group of friends chose to isolate their kids when the American panic came back around to us, but what was the point? All these kids had already been hanging out together outside of school for months. Throughout the whole thing there was not a single day that my family sheltered in place. Believe me, I envied the hell out of those who were lucky enough to stay home – not because I was afraid of the virus, necessarily, but because so much of my precious energy was wasted on the commute to work.
Japan’s Accidental Success
For sure the lock-down strategy had done a lot of good in some places like China, Western Europe, New York, and a few other big cities in the States. Japan implemented a “state of emergency,” which was effectively a word of caution. People were left to do what they wanted. Japanese typically admired places like Italy and New York for their individualism and freewheeling excitement, but it became apparent that during states of emergency the “exciting” places of the world were not the places to be.
Aside from Japan’s group-think advantage, they also had in their arsenal a set of cultural norms that kept people healthy in jam-packed conditions.
Japan valued social distancing in the best of times, and for centuries they had been a much cleaner place than the West. They bowed, and never shook hands. They didn’t kiss cheeks or hug.
I loved Italy, but it was easy to see how the virus could spread quickly through Rome. One time, on a crowded bus in near Termini Station, some young ragazzo sneezed without covering his mouth, coating my face in a fine sheen of snot. Perhaps coincidence, but by the end of the trip I was sick.
New York may had similar cultural norms. I was no expert on that city, but compared to Tokyo it didn’t seem like a very hygiene-conscious place. This became apparent when news stories appeared to remind Americans of the proper way to cover their faces when sneezing, or how to wash their hands.
I had always washed my hands the proper way because it made common sense, just as it made common sense to remove my shoes when I entered a house. The Japanese had standards for cleanliness that were superior to the West centuries ago, and they were still superior now.
The Japanese had much higher life expectancy than Americans anyway, and seemed healthier overall. Generally speaking there were almost no fat people in Japan, and this may have played a part in their success.
A week ago there was another adorable news article in the Japan Times: “ICU Filling Up!” Early on in the article it was revealed that Saint Luke Hospital of Tokyo had only one bed left in its ICU, and all the others were occupied by victims of the virus. The twist to the story was that Saint Luke Hospital had only eight beds total in its ICU, laughably inadequate even in the best of times. Nearly every hospital in the U.S. and the U.K. had made emergency preparations to receive an anticipated influx of hundreds or thousands of additional patients, but not Japan.
Disease experts would continue to be baffled by Tokyo’s seemingly accidental success for many years to come. Every week since January there had been a doom-and-gloom article in the news about how Tokyo would get hit hard, but it never came to pass. Why not? Tokyo had equal if not greater population density than New York, and more smokers per capita. For sure Tokyo had more old people. Japan had the oldest population in the world. Hell, the average age of Tokyo home owners was sixty-five!
I saw some stories blaming socioeconomic differences and limited access to health care in New York. These things were surely problems, but it wasn’t like the wonderful Japanese health care system had attended to everyone’s needs to win the war against the virus. The hospitals just weren’t filling up (except for the one that only had eight ICU beds).
The Japanese government was generally inept at handling the virus. (As a symbol of their ineptitude we would finally receive our two tiny “Abe masks” from the government, weeks after the state of emergency ended.) The government got lucky with the “no tests, no cases” approach. There was no cover up, just accidental success on the part of the government. It was the Japanese people who would save the day. In the case of a state of emergency, it was a real luxury to live in a society with group-think compliance, respect for community, and cleanliness standards superior to those in the West. As of May, in Tokyo there were a few hundred deaths out of thirty million in all twenty-three wards.
Who Stayed Sane?
At work (and in America), the masses were still in full lock-down mode at the end of April, minds securely fastened to what had happened on in America. After nearly four months of stress over this thing I decided to take the Japanese Golden Week off to enjoy the beautiful, uncrowded comfort of our beach side town.
There was talk of a resurgence of the virus, and a few lingering “what if’s,” but I continued to ask: what if something good happened instead?
On the Friday before my holiday I walked down the street from work to check on the USS Reagan one last time. Both sensor arrays were spinning. I jogged back to the office in high spirits. The Reagan was getting under way. (By early next week the Reagan would be doing engineering trials on the open sea, and the Roosevelt was preparing to deploy.)
Our city was a popular tourist destination for people living in Tokyo. Every year we get a couple hundred thousand extra visitors for the national holiday in the first week of May, called Golden Week. Yes, a surge of people greater than the population of the city itself all visited in one week. This was a miserable time for us locals, who found it hard to get around town due to all the visiting dopes, who I referred to as Golden Weakers. This year, however, the wonderful virus turned this mass of humanity away. There was an announcement from the Mayor on the first day of Golden Week, this time not vague at all: “If you are a tourist, go home. Do not surf. Do not go to the shrines. Please. Go home.” The wife and I had a good laugh over this. I took the week off and it was the best Golden Week ever, although I did wear a little sticker on my shirt that stated “I am not a tourist,” to ward off the evil eyes of old ladies at the supermarket.
It had been a rough spring but things were starting to look better. I got my tooth fixed, and my seasonal allergies cleared up. After the holiday I would resume the job search, to assuage my own sickness of the mind.
The Reagan getting under way was a symbolic vindication of my faith, but what were the facts? Had I been a justified optimist, or a fool?
As of May things still looked good in our city on the Shonan Coast. As mentioned, we saw some cases in January and February but it never spread and it didn’t look like it ever would. I walked by a hospital every day to and from the station, and the place still looked sleepy as could be. The lobby was usually empty. Sometimes a nurse would be sitting outside reading a book, enjoying the sunny spring day.
Closer to home, our densely-populated prefecture (Kanagawa, adjacent to Tokyo) had recorded over nine hundred cases by the end of May. Kanagawa had a population of over nine million people, so something like one out of nine thousand got sick after months of viral onslaught, or 0.01%. Of those thousand people, there were fifty-six deaths.
To put into perspective, this would be like filling three World Cup stadiums to capacity, and from those crowds, one person dying. (This would have been one out of one hundred and sixty thousand.) In some countries it was safe to assume that at least one person died on the way home from a World Cup match anyway, and this went unnoticed by the population at large.
Even closer to home, there had been a total of forty recorded cases in our city of 178,000 people, or 0.02% of the population. This was a little higher percentage than the overall prefecture, perhaps because our city hosted many visitors from out of town. There was no record of deaths (either because there were no deaths or because city hall didn’t list them), but it was presumed to be zero.
I had been in the midst of a couple large-scale global disasters, one of which killed twenty thousand people in ten minutes. (Somehow, a large number of people dying suddenly was perceived as more tragic than the same number of people dying slowly over the course of months.)
Recently I realized I had been born in the midst of a worldwide disaster. In October of 1968 the Hong Kong Flu hit America. According to the CDC it killed over one hundred thousand people. The population of the U.S. was around two hundred million at the time, so it was accurate to say the Hong Kong Flu killed more people per capita than the Wuhan Flu (around a quarter of a million, in proportion to today’s population). There was no “number of cases” statistic, because people had more important shit to worry about in 1968, like a pivotal presidential election, an unpopular war overseas, the assassinations of MLK and Bobby Kennedy, widespread civil unrest, and multiple nationwide riots. (The similarities between 2020 and 1968 were fascinating, but one thing was clear: things were much, much better in the current age.) Despite killing more people per capita than the current virus, the Hong Kong Flu barely made the news. Nobody wore masks. There was no lock down, no economic impact. Recently I asked my mom if she remembered a pandemic the year of my birth. Of course she didn’t. Nobody did. Lucky them.
By the end of May, the CDC would update its statistics on the virus, showing a mortality rate for people under fifty to be less than the regular flu. Their best guess at asymptomatic rate was thirty-five percent, which brought the morality rate way down. In rare cases where seemingly healthy people had been tested en masse (like on the USS Roosevelt), the asymptomatic rate was as high as seventy percent.
In reality, the virus of 2019 might have been the least dangerous global disaster I had ever seen, even less dangerous than so-called normal life. The socioeconomic aftershock would be a different story, however, and I was anxious to see how the next few years would play out.
Over the course of the past four months my optimism had been smacked down with responses like “let’s see how positive you are when you get the virus”. Indeed, this was exactly the point. Eventually, every one of us would get the virus, or a virus, or something that killed us dead. Forget all the numbers floating around. For every one of us, the chance of dying was 100%. The point was how we chose to face this fact, and the virus exposed that most of us Americans did not handle it well. Cautious optimism was always the best attitude in a disaster. Sickness may have begun in the mind, but so did health.
NOTE 1: Throughout this essay I’ve referred to the virus as “the virus” and “this thing” because even the name of it had become politicized, and I wanted to remain neutral. Just like the Hong Kong Flu in 1968, it seemed logical to call it the Wuhan Flu.
NOTE 2: There was something about the phrase “stay safe” that bothered me. This had become a common sign-off for many Americans during these times. Why not “stay healthy,” or “stay strong”? “Stay safe” sounded like the motto for helicopter parents, coddling the weak and afraid. The phrase had a “please take care of me,” “I’m a victim” feel to it. Oh you poor thing.
NOTE 3: I chose to write this in past tense because for me this whole thing was over by mid-March.