COMMENTARY: How the coronavirus has changed daily life in Asia

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: WHO official says outbreak not at stage to declare pandemic'
COVID-19: WHO official says outbreak not at stage to declare pandemic
WATCH: Dr. Michael Ryan, the executive director of the World Health Organization's (WHO) health emergencies programme, said on Friday that they were not at a stage yet to declare the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. He explained that the course of the virus can be "significantly altered" due to a mixture of response, including containment measures and "robust" public health. – Feb 28, 2020

TOKYO — Imagine how disappointing it would be for Canadian hockey fans if the entire NHL playoffs were played in empty arenas or cancelled entirely.

Or picture the complications that would arise for Canadian parents — and grandparents — if all the kids in Canada were told to stay away from school for one month or more.

What if every major Canadian corporation and every level of government compelled their employees to work remotely or to only get together in two entirely separate groups so that if one group became ill the others could carry on?

Those are among the drastic measures that Japan is implementing or urging its citizens, schools and companies to undertake as the number of people infected with the COVID-19 coronavirus here pushes above 200.

Meanwhile, the number is more than 3,000 in neighbouring South Korea, where all 28,500 U.S. troops are on lockdown in their bases, and nearly 80,000 people are infected in not-so-far-away China.

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An official from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Organizing Committee sent me a polite note of apology on Thursday. He had been unable to promptly answer questions I had about the Summer Games that are supposed to begin in late July.

He and his colleagues had been seriously sidetracked because “the coronavirus issue is getting more critical in Japan. Now we are facing a difficult situation [about whether] to cancel, postpone or downsize sports events for one to two weeks.”

When I had asked him a few days earlier what would happen if the Tokyo Olympics had to be cancelled because of COVID-19, he replied, “A catastrophe.”

Walking away from the US$26-billion Olympic investment is one of many hard decisions with serious international implications that will have to be made. The last date for abandoning the Games in Tokyo or finding a way to postpone them until next year is only 13 weeks away.

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Click to play video: 'IOC member says ‘a long way’ from cancelling Tokyo 2020'
IOC member says ‘a long way’ from cancelling Tokyo 2020

Eerie secondary and tertiary effects of the coronavirus can already be seen in Tokyo.

The world’s busiest train station, Shinjuku, which normally handles more than 1.2 million commuters a day, had far fewer passengers last week. So few, in fact, that I achieved the nearly impossible: I was able to find a seat on a commuter train at 4:30 p.m. a few days ago.

To eat at Sushiro, a high-quality, low-cost sushi restaurant chain, usually requires waiting between 20 minutes and an hour. But two nights ago at a Sushiro, near where I stay, the restaurant was only half full.

When I arrived here two weeks ago, perhaps only one person in five was wearing a facemask when they stepped outdoors. By this weekend, the figure was probably nine in 10.

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I began wearing a face mask several days ago. To not have done so would have felt socially awkward and would be construed as uncaring.

Of course, whether the usually crowded subway crossover point at Bloor and Yonge in Toronto becomes as empty as almost every such station in China, or whether the wearing of facemasks becomes commonplace in Canada as it is here in Japan, depends on whether the coronavirus begins to afflict many Canadians.

If these changes do come to pass, they will be a life-altering experience for the country.

My only experience of a virulent epidemic was the cholera outbreak of 1994 among Rwandan refugees in eastern Zaire, which followed by a few months the horrifying genocide that took place in Rwanda.

Tens of thousands of people died from cholera over a couple of weeks. Some of the victims literally gasped their last breath as they pleaded for assistance while, within metres of where they were dying, others were being hastily buried to prevent the spread of the disease.

Beyond the psychological traumas that many survivors of such scourges live with, and the hardship to businesses caused by empty trains and restaurants, there are other unpretty side effects of the COVID-19 outbreak. Hoarding of masks and gloves and profiteering from their sale has become an issue. The shortage of surgical masks is worrying for Canadian health care workers.

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Click to play video: 'Tips for travelling amid ongoing coronavirus concerns'
Tips for travelling amid ongoing coronavirus concerns

The gravest macroeconomic effects of the coronavirus may only become obvious in the months to come. But hints of what lies ahead are everywhere.

Trillions of dollars have already been stripped away from global stock markets. And there are starkly-reduced passenger loads and far fewer flights offered by Asian air carriers and airlines such as Air Canada, which has cancelled all flights to China except a daily service from Vancouver to Hong Kong.

Notwithstanding Beijing’s enormous financial reserves and the absolute powers of the Communist Party, a big question is whether Xi Jinping, who has styled himself as the invincible, all-knowing emperor of all the Chinas, but was slow to provide information about COVID-19 to his citizens and the world, can withstand the earthquake that is threatening his ambition to make his country a respected and feared global economic juggernaut.

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It is far too early to count Xi out, but in just a few weeks, the coronavirus has exacted a tremendous toll on his reputation at home and abroad. As the infection spreads, leaders of many other countries will inevitably be hit with similar jolts.

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

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