At about one o’clock in the afternoon on March 31, as Japan was just getting warmed up to the possibility of a COVID-19 state of emergency, a man in his late 50s popped into a convenience store in Joyo City, Kyoto Prefecture.
The man was on leave from his job at an ophthalmology clinic where he worked as a technician. He had caught a case of adenoviral keratoconjunctivitis which is a relatively mild but highly contagious viral infection of the eye, very similar to pink eye. Because of his condition, he thought it wise to warn the clerk while paying.
“I have something that is contagious by touching, so please disinfect this,” while handing over his payment. However, the clerk just looked at him strangely, so he repeated more simply, “Put alcohol on this.” Once the purchase was complete he left and went about his day.
Four days later the police paid him a visit and placed him under arrest for “obstruction of business,” a broadly defined crime that involves impeding a business’ ability to function.
On that fateful day in the convenience store, after the man had left, the clerk immediately told her manager that someone had come in saying, “I have SARS.” The manager then called 110 (the police emergency number) and closed the store for over two hours so that it could be completely sterilized.
The man denied the charges, claiming that he’d never said he had SARS at all. On that day his words in Japanese were “Boku (I) sawaru (touch) to (and) utsuru (transmit),” while it is a stretch, it’s not completely implausible that the “sa” in “sawaru” and “tsuru” in “ustsuru” could be misheard as “SARS” (“sahzu” in Japanese) under certain conditions.
An investigation was launched and by May 14, the public prosecutor decided not to file charges because the security camera footage yielded no evidence of him saying “SARS.” However, by this time the incident was reported nationwide, and while most major outlets didn’t print the man’s name, it still managed to get out onto the internet.
He since had to resign from his job and is having difficulty finding new work due to the current economic situation and his newfound notoriety. He told Sankei Shimbun, “My name is still on the internet as ‘the SARS guy’ and it’s devastating. What else can I say, except times are rough now.”
Most people sympathized with the man, but others pointed out that there was lots of blame to go around.
“That’s like the plot of some absurd comedy.”
“That’s a good way to encourage infected people to hide their illnesses.”
“That guy might have a tongue infection too.”
“He should sue for everything he went through.”
“He shouldn’t have gone to a convenience store in his condition in the first place.”
“I can’t really blame the clerk. He never specified his illness and in these circumstances what was she supposed to think?”
“He lost everything, just for doing the right thing. That’s so sad.”
“The police were way out of line here.”
That last sentiment was echoed by the man’s lawyer who told media, “the misunderstanding was unavoidable, but the problem here is the police. He was arrested before the investigation was properly conducted such as through scrutinizing the surveillance camera evidence. They got the procedural order wrong.”
This sparked further discussion on the topic of police misconduct which originated in the U.S. and sent shockwaves throughout the world, including Japan.
“This kind of stuff is going to start an anti-police movement like they have in the USA.”
“If the police had just had a basic conversation with the guy before arresting him, it probably would have been an open and shut case.”
“The people criticizing the police are probably the kind that get an attitude whenever they get questioned on the street.”
“If the police didn’t arrest him and he did end up having SARS then everyone would have piled on them for being lazy. They can’t win.”
This incident happened in March, and social anxiety has only gone up since then. Last April, about 1,300 110 calls regarding COVID-19 concerns were made in Tokyo alone. Even though the initial wave has subsided, fears of returning to all that in a potential second wave is perhaps even more mentally taxing for a lot of people.
It’s important to keep that in mind when interacting with others and to value patience and communication as much as possible, because times are certainly rough, and even a simple trip to a convenience store can turn disastrous over simple misunderstandings.
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