COMMENTARY: Japan caught in the grip of a virus delivered by sea and air

Coronavirus outbreak: Tokyo governor criticizes suggestion London could host 2020 Olympics
WATCH: Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike criticized a suggestion by a London, U.K., mayoral candidate on Friday that the city could host the 2020 summer Olympic Games if concerns over the COVID-19 outbreak forced organizers to look for another site.

TOKYO — The greatest concentration of Canadians with the illness caused by COVID-19 coronavirus is not in British Columbia or Ontario. It is in a string of unidentified hospitals around the Japanese capital.

It is here in Tokyo that 43 unnamed Canadians from the Princess Diamond cruise liner were sent to hospital over the past few days after testing positive for the virus. So were 591 other passengers and crew who became infected on the ship. Twenty-eight of those travellers are critically ill and three of them have died, according to Japanese news reports. As of the time of writing, 17 of those who were infected have recovered.

READ MORE: Containing the novel coronavirus — Is COVID-19 here to stay?

Another 130 or so Japanese who had nothing to do with the cruise ship, have fallen ill, too. Among them have been: two young brothers in northern Japan; a father and son who flew out of Wuhan, China, on a charter flight three weeks ago with other evacuees; a healthcare worker; a four-year-old and, even more concerning, a middle school teacher who was conducting classes near Tokyo until just three days ago.

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Next door in South Korea, there has been an explosion in the number of cases over the past 72 hours — to 443 from 220. The main conduit for the infections in Korea apparently are a hospital and members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the Montreal-sized city of Daegu.

Italy put a dozen towns in lockdown over the weekend after 30 new cases and two deaths, with a hospital again being implicated in the spread of the virus. Iran has 10 new cases, too, and lacks the kind of quality medical care available in the West or in many Asian countries.

READ MORE: ‘Operational error’: Passenger tests positive for COVID-19 after leaving cruise ship

Adding to the gloom, six Australians who tested negative when they left the Diamond Princess a few days ago have subsequently tested positive while in quarantine back home. So, too, has an Israeli woman from the ship who flew home.

And a Chinese man who was judged to be free of the virus seems to have caught it a second time. If having had the virus does not provide immunity from it, Wuhan’s miseries may have only just begun.

Canadian cruise passengers begin quarantine in Cornwall, Ont.
Canadian cruise passengers begin quarantine in Cornwall, Ont.

The cold, constantly changing partial tallies listed above strongly suggest a terrifying new phase of the disease that was first diagnosed about 10 weeks ago in China may already be upon us. With every passing hour, the possibility of a global pandemic looks as if it may be increasing.

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Whether the medical systems of Canada or any other country is ready for what may be on the way is anybody’s guess. We had all better hope that urgent preparations are being made to have many thousands of isolation beds, antibiotics, rubber gloves and hazmat suits available.

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READ MORE: Canadian hospital space a concern despite lessons from SARS, experts say

A first step would be to get Canadians more aware of the deepening global health crisis than they have been until now. Though there has been a lot of media coverage of the coronavirus saga in Canada, it has still often taken a back seat to protests of a small number of unelected hereditary chiefs in northwestern British Columbia who oppose a pipeline that has been approved by their elected leaders, and by the never-ending lunacies of Donald Trump’s presidency and the Democrats’ feeble response.

While many Canadians have understandably been alarmed by the national economic consequences of the anti-pipeline protests, little is being said about how Canada might deal with the coronavirus if it indeed becomes a pandemic like the deadly Spanish flu was at the end of the First World War.

READ MORE: Flu shot protected most people from infection during unusual influenza season: study

Japan is already urging workers to find more space for themselves on the country’s notoriously crowded commute by staggering their shifts. The city of Tokyo, which has only had one case so far that has not been associated with the Diamond Princess, has cancelled all major events where food is served through the middle of March. Across the East China Sea in Seoul, public rallies have been banned and some churches have understandably been closed.

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Is Canada doing enough to protect Canadians from the coronavirus outbreak?
Is Canada doing enough to protect Canadians from the coronavirus outbreak?

Canada got off to a slow start in assisting those Canadians in Asia who were menaced by the possibility of becoming infected with the coronavirus. It was among the last major countries to repatriate its citizens from Wuhan and was slow again getting Canadians home who had been aboard the Diamond Princess in Japan.

Other than to say that the situation was “complicated,” Ottawa has not provided much explanation for those delays, or why foreign aircraft had to be chartered to bring home the Canadians at highest risk. It is understandable that the Canadian Armed Forces had trouble providing an aircraft because one of its four museum-piece Airbus 300s crashed into a hangar door and won’t be flying again until this summer. Another was set aside for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to burn a carbon trail from Ottawa to Addis Ababa to Kuwait to Dakar to Munich to Ottawa in his kind of panicky late quest for a seat for Canada on the United Nations Security Council.

READ MORE: Trudeau campaigns for UN Security Council seat, but analysts say it may be too late

Still, why did foreign jets have to be chartered? After all, Air Canada must have all kinds of extra jumbo jet capacity available after cancelling all its flights to China a few weeks ago. Could it be that Canada’s leading international airline or its crews baulked at being part of a potentially dangerous rescue mission?

Coronavirus outbreak: Canadians from Diamond Princess cruise criticize safeguards during quarantine
Coronavirus outbreak: Canadians from Diamond Princess cruise criticize safeguards during quarantine

Japan’s handling of the coronavirus, like Canada’s and China’s, has been criticized for being slow, too. A major complaint has been why thousands of passengers and crew were made to spend weeks together on a ship that medical experts likened to a Petri dish because people known to be carrying the disease had been sealed aboard with those who were not infected.

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Still, the general feeling here is that Japan’s healthcare system is robust enough to manage. But there are mega-concerns about Japan’s car and electronics industries, which depend upon now-closed Chinese factories for parts and have already been hurt by a slowdown in business that preceded the coronavirus outbreak by many months.

READ MORE: COVID-19 and the Tokyo Olympics — What you need to know

Beyond that, there is the fate of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, which have cost as much as US$26 billion to stage so far. If the coronavirus keeps hopscotching around the globe, there is anxious — though still fairly discrete — talk here, that the quadrennial sports jamboree, which is to begin in late July, may have to be cancelled or postponed until next year. Even if the Games are held, it is an open question as to how many foreign visitors will be brave enough to show up, knowing that a lot of their time will be spent sitting in packed sports halls, using packed public transport and eating in packed restaurants that all could increase the risk of infection.

Mostly, though, the Japanese have been stoic about an illness that either flew ashore or washed over them. More Japanese than usual are wearing face masks, though as in Canada, finding such masks for sale is just about impossible right now.

The main line of defence is washing or disinfecting hands. Most of the country seems to be doing that obsessively, every waking hour or two.

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That is, alas, about all the good advice to confront COVID-19 that the world has come up with so far. There is no vaccine or agreed-upon drug or cocktail of drugs available to Canada that could contain or kill the virus.

Almost all the portents are ominous… and getting worse.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas