In this episode, Tokyo Podcast’s host Anthony Joh interviews a friend of his who contracted the coronavirus while. This episode will cover some basics of Japan’s healthcare, as well as what you can expect if you contract COVID-19 while living in Japan.
Anthony comes to you one week into his two-week self-quarantine back in Canada. As mentioned in the previous episode, he’s recently returned to his home country after the coronavirus pandemic shuffled his plans in Japan around a bit. Anthony intends to stay in Canada until Japan’s tourism market will hopefully start opening up a little bit and he’ll be able to go back to work with the start-up company. Until then, he’s eagerly waiting for the end of his self-quarantine, as Canada’s summer is gorgeous compared to Tokyo’s furnace-like conditions. Anthony has a few interviews and content lined up, so you can expect to see more episodes being released here at Tokyo Podcast.
A Coronavirus Case in Japan
Anthony managed to do an interview with a friend of his named Tom. Tom is currently self-quarantining after being cleared to go home from a Japanese hospital. He is a former coronavirus patient. In this interview, Anthony and Tom will discuss what led to the unexpected contracting of the COVID-19 virus, the steps Tom took to get tested and receive care, and his overall impression of the experience.
Tom most likely caught the virus from a friend of his while they were out playing football together. His friend was asymptomatic during the outing, and Tom himself didn’t begin experiencing symptoms until a few days following the event. He remembers coming home on a Friday evening and feeling sluggish. In addition to this, he developed a headache. Tom checked his temperature and realized he had a mild fever. He didn’t consider that he’d contracted COVID but imagined due to the mild symptoms that he was fighting off a slight cold. He went to bed early, expecting to bounce back by the next day as he always does in such cases.
When Tom woke up and felt no improvement, he still didn’t think about the possibility of the coronavirus. Thinking maybe he’d come down with a bad cold or perhaps the flu, he continued to monitor his symptoms.
On day three, Tom still wasn’t feeling great. Neither his fever nor his headache had gotten better. To make matters worse, his friend sent a message saying that he had tested positive for COVID-19. Tom knew he had to get tested at this point.
Tom recalls that the process for getting tested in Japan is clearly aimed at native speakers. He had to make quite a few calls to find out what to do next. Ultimately, he found his way to the Himawari Service, which is a free resource offered by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to help residents find medical care suited to their language and needs. The website is in Japanese, with a translation service offered for English, Korean, and Chinese. There’s a more succinct roundup of Himawari’s services here, in addition to some emergency medical numbers with multi-lingual options. Tom ended up making his arrangements in Japanese. The service directed him to a nearby clinic that accepted possible coronavirus patients.
If you’re getting tested for COVID in Japan, you absolutely need to call the clinic and set up a scheduled appointment, as they need to prepare special rooms to keep you separate from other patients. Fortunately, Tom was able to land an appointment on the evening of the same day.
When he arrived at the clinic, he was told over the phone to wait outside until a staff member ushered him in. Tom waited in a specially designated room, kept apart from the other patients. He was examined in a private room, where he told the doctor his symptoms and the timeline of events leading up to the visit. The doctor officially recommended that Tom get a PCR test. This is another vital step in Japan’s testing process. Tom was told that the doctor would contact the ward’s governing office, who in turn would connect Tom with a location at which he could be tested.
Because Tom had visited the clinic in the evening, he had to wait until the next day for his call about where he could be tested. Fortunately, Tom lives alone and didn’t have to worry about spreading the virus to anyone in his home. When the ward’s government office contacted Tom, they told him he would be tested by appointment at a hospital about 5 kilometers away—and that he wasn’t allowed to use public transportation to go to the hospital. Unless he was experiencing respiratory issues, Tom was advised to bike or walk to the hospital for his test. Tom doesn’t own a bike, so he ended up walking 5 kilometers there and back!
On day 5, Tom’s fever actually broke and his headache eased. However, he noticed that his sense of smell was fading. Tom comments that this infamous coronavirus symptom doesn’t just happen in an instant; it was a slow fade that he noticed when his air freshener didn’t smell as strong as it usually does. Tom tested other condiments and foods before realizing that his sense of smell was indeed growing weaker. At this point, even though he hadn’t yet been tested, Tom was certain he had the coronavirus. He had already reached out to two other friends who had shared a meal with him before his symptoms started; they went to get tested as well.
After walking to the hospital, Tom was tested by a doctor wearing only a mask and surgical gloves. He confirms that the PCR test involving a nose swab is incredibly uncomfortable, but offers the assurance that this discomfort is brief. The test takes maybe 10 seconds max. While Tom’s friends ended up having to wait over a weekend due to the timing of their tests, he received his results later the same day: he had the coronavirus. Tom received a phone call first from the hospital that tested him, during which they informed him that they would be telling the ward’s government office. Then he received a call from the office. Tom would need to stay isolated in a government-dedicated facility, as they didn’t want him going out for food and possibly spreading the virus further. He was told to pack some clothes
Tom was picked up in an ambulance and taken to his isolation area. There are plenty of coronavirus patients with mild symptoms in Japan who end up staying in special hotels, but in Tom’s case, the isolation facility was in a hospital. At this point, Tom had no fever and no other symptoms beyond his lacking sense of smell. Upon arriving at the hospital, he checked in and was given a CT scan, x-ray, and urine test. All his results were normal, meaning that the virus wasn’t impacting his health in any extreme way. Tom was led to the room he would be staying in until he was free of the virus.
For the entirety of his hospitalization, Tom experienced no other symptoms. He was checked on daily by nurses in full protective gear and survived mostly by watching Netflix as opposed to the hospital TV. While the visiting nurses did their best to assuage Tom’s isolation with small talk, the fact that they were completely masked and layered for protection still left him feeling lonely. Fortunately, by day 10, Tom’s sense of smell had returned. With no symptoms for five consecutive days, he had passed the WHO guidelines for a recovered COVID-19 patient. Tom was discharged from the hospital and sent home. He notes that while he had heard he would be sent home in the same ambulance that had picked him up, he ultimately had to take a public bus back.
Tom wasn’t given a PCR test before he was discharged. However, he assures that there is a solid reason for this: while the virus may have died, its RNA remains in the body for some time. The PCR test is sensitive even to the RNA of a dead virus, so even a recovered patient will test positive on a PCR test. Still, Tom remains wary of official guidelines, and plans to self-isolate in his apartment for another two weeks to be totally safe.
Total cost of catching the coronavirus in Japan
Officially, if you go through the government-mandated process for being tested (as Tom did), your personal cost for catching coronavirus should be minimal or none. In Tom’s case, the only fee he ended up paying was the consultation fee from his first appointment at the local clinic. This was about ￥2,400 (~$22 USD).
There are some warnings from other people who have experienced either a coronavirus scare or who caught the virus that if you try to simply find a testing site on your own as opposed to a government service, you might end up falling short of the guidelines for coverage. This is especially important if you’re a temporary resident or don’t have national health insurance in Japan: ALWAYS contact your local government health center to arrange for the testing process. You should be able to find the nearest government health center on the Himawari website listed above.
Lingering Coronavirus Symptoms
Tom doesn’t seem to have any lingering effects from his brush with COVID-19. By and large, scientists believe that people who catch the virus will experience mild to moderate symptoms that will then dissipate after a week or so. However, there are some patients who continue to experience lingering symptoms for weeks or months after they’ve been declared officially virus-free. This phenomenon has been noted in severely-hit countries like the US, and although it especially isn’t the norm here in Japan, it is not unheard of. With so little still known about this new virus, this can be a frightening prospect. Tom even admits that these days, a sniffle or a cough is enough to make him anxious. Even without severe ongoing symptoms, the mental impact of his experience is a lasting one.
Tom especially emphasizes the mental consequences of his illness. Contracting COVID-19, whether you’re living abroad or not, can severely uproot your life. Tom had to stop working, stop buying his own groceries, and even had to live in a hospital for a week. He reflects that his coworkers and bosses were easy-going when he informed him that he might have the virus. They gave him the necessary time off and didn’t require that he work while hospitalized. Still, the fear of a social stigma attached to the coronavirus can truly weigh heavily on recovered patients. Whether or not it becomes serious, there is little doubt that the coronavirus has a heavy impact on the lives of those who catch it.
The New Normal
It’s still hard for even the experts to say many things confidently about a future with the coronavirus. Anthony and Tom both comment on how incredibly different the virus’ affect on its victims can be. Many people are like Tom: they catch what feels like a stubborn cold and have to isolate for a week or two before slowly returning to normal. However, there are many tragic cases like that of Nick Cordero, a healthy Broadway star in his 40s who lost his life after a grueling three month-long coma. And between these two extremes are a myriad of different stories. Is this due to various mutations of the virus? Does it rely on a person’s age, health history, and genetics? Scientists around the world work tirelessly to unravel these important mysteries.
It’s important to understand that we are rarely beyond the coronavirus’ reach. Perhaps due to extensive, daily media coverage, COVID-19 might seem like something that happens to a bunch of people on the news. Tom himself never expected to catch it. In fact, he’d barely left his home during the semi-lockdown Tokyo experienced, and only did this once to exercise outside with a friend. The irony of catching COVID-19 the one and only time he ventured outside isn’t lost on him. While this isn’t meant to instill fear, it can certainly be a cautionary tale. In this new normal, we need to stay vigilant and be ready for the scenario of getting infected.
COVID-19 Related Resources in Japan
Here’s a list of bi-lingual resources available in Japan.
- Japan’s official tourism website, which includes a list of entry bans, an updated national count of infected persons, and information pertaining to medical hotlines and insurance.
- The translation portal for Himawari’s medical service website. Languages offered: Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and English. As mentioned above, Himawari is a service created by the Tokyo Metropolitan government that assists residents in finding medical care.
- TELL Japan’s COVID resource list. TELL Japan is an international counselling service.
- Japan’s official Ministry of Health, Welfare, and Labor English page. This ministry covers a myriad of government services including pension and labor, but they also manage health issues. Their coronavirus page can be found here.
- Information on Japan’s measures against the coronavirus, as well as updated information about lockdowns and so on, can be found on this website.
- Japan COVID-19 Coronavirus Tracker. An excellent resource for tracking the spread of COVID-19 across Japan.
Thanks for listening in! Stay healthy, safe, and tuned for the next episode of Tokyo Podcast with Anthony Joh.