Contaminative crises: coronavirus and radiation

My longread on the social and personal consequences of the Fukushima disaster came out this week: Nine years on, Fukushima’s mental health fallout lingers.

When I arrived in Japan, televisions were blaring news of spreading infections in a cruise ship moored off the coast of Yokohama. Japanese nationals were being repatriated via emergency flights from Wuhan. Everyone I spoke to mentioned the eerie parallels between the virus and the radioactive release from the Fukushima plant. One night at 1am, I walked into the dining room of an inn I was staying at near the evacuation zone. The owner was still up, squinting at her laptop under fluorescent strip lights.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said, and sighed. “A Chinese student wants to come and stay in a couple of days. I don’t want our guests to be infected, but then again, they said we were contagious too. I know how that feels.”

Indeed, evacuees fleeing the plume in Fukushima back in March 2011 were turned away from hotels, petrol stations, even the homes of relatives. “Some friends said we were still contaminated. I wasn’t offended, I think they were right,” Mizue Kanno, a 67-year-old woman I interviewed for the article, told me. “In Osaka, I felt like a mouldy orange. You know when an orange rots in a cardboard box, it spreads the mould around? That was me… I thought a mouldy orange should stay put and not spread the contamination around.”

Some who’ve contracted coronavirus have had the same sense of shame and internal stigma: they feel embarrassed for having contracted it, for not having taken sufficient precautions, for having potentially passed it on. The inherent shame in having contracted it seemed to nudge some people into self-denial. In March, I heard from two acquaintances who said they were suffering from coughing, fever, and had lost their sense of taste, and yet, even though these symptoms are highly indicative, they texted: “Not sure if it’s the virus; maybe it’s just the flu?” One was still sending their children to school; the other’s partner was still going to work. Perhaps it was denial or disbelief that this “foreign” flu had come to them.

Another similarity: the fury at the (perceived) incompetence of governments. As the virus spread, I found the craving for an authoritarian government response — both in Japan and elsewhere — fascinating. In March, the British public was begging for a crackdown that the government seemed reluctant to give, for fear of reducing liberties. People were scared of dying, or losing those they loved. They were prepared to make sacrifices, but scientists guessed — wrongly — that the public “wouldn’t accept such restrictions.”

After the triple disaster in Japan, the public wanted protection: promises; assurances; compensation. While in the course of ordinary life many people want less interference from the government, at times of crisis we look to our leaders in expectation. People everywhere are furious at the (perceived) incompetence of the government. Either because they didn’t react quickly enough. Or they were too draconian. Or their rules too arbitrary. Their advice too vague. Japanese activists I spoke to were scathing of their government response’s to COVID-19. “It’s just like after the disaster… they’re not listening to scientists, they’re not taking action, they’re not protecting people,” one woman told me.

Then there’s the way that health concerns have been pitched against the economic imperative. Just as Shinzo Abe and co have battled to get the rest of Japan’s nuclear reactors back online, governments everywhere are contradicting their previous heuristics for defining regulations, or introducing contradictory guidelines. In the UK, children can go and see a lion in a zoo, but can’t go to school; in the Netherlands, brothels are re-opening while nightclubs remain shut. The U.S. is a case unto itself; Trump has been vowing to ‘re-open the economy’ since before cases even peaked.

***

Both health crises have changed the way we look at the world. We look at people differently. Objects. Plants seem to seethe with radiation; a cardboard delivery box bristles with virus cells.

In a landscape contaminated by radiation, you think, all the time: “Can I touch it?” “Can I eat it?”. It’s the same with the virus. We have this idea that we have to be hyper-vigilant around cardboard and steel. Plastic too. Wearing latex gloves in public is no longer all that strange. (Although, an emerging body of research suggests that it’s shared airspace, not surfaces, that are the main vector of transmission).

But whereas worrying about irradiated people being contagious is unfounded hysteria, the fear of catching the virus from someone else — anyone — is very real. Extremely rational. Those who sneer at what they see as hypersensitivity — who bellow ‘Oh, come on!’ when people ask them to keep their distance — are actually, in this case, the irrational ones.

There’s the conflicts between people with differing attitudes towards risk. In Fukushima, people who are concerned about radiation are sometimes hesitant to express it, for fear of being judged as over-sensitive. I’ve heard the same about people in certain U.S. states. On the other side — some people who are less concerned about transmission of the virus are offended by those who dart out of their way and yell at them to keep their distance. “All the fear, man. It’s so… aggressive,” someone told me.

The same old lie about crises and disasters being great levellers has also been bandied around. It’s not true, of course: the rich mostly have the resources to insulate themselves from it, or escape it, while the poor bear the brunt. Those with less money and resources (not to mention social support) in Fukushima have struggled to build a new life for themselves, or else struggled to manage large sums of compensation money, while wealthier people were able to settle elsewhere. In the UK and elsewhere, there is a truly shocking racial and social disparity between those who die of COVID-19. And all those losing their low-wage jobs, or simply not being able to work and being ineligible for support are suffering far more than the middle-class knowledge workers who have been furloughed, or who have sufficient safety nets to help them through.

The last similarity I can see is the parallel crises complicating recovery: tsunami damage and energy shortage in Fukushima; global recession and climate change for coronavirus. What will governments prioritise in the recovery? In Japan, sadly, the opportunity for an energy transition was squandered, and old coal plants were hauled back online. In spite of the calls for a green recovery, the fear is that governments will point to their empty pockets as they bury their climate ambitions.

One of the saddest stories I found in Fukushima is of people moving back to their old hometowns, only to find them so completely transfigured that it’s not home any more. The virus has echoes of this: life will creep back, but it will be different.

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