Japan Hotels Housing Sick, Homeless During Pandemic
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Japan Hotels Housing Sick, Homeless During Pandemic

By Elizabeth Gibson for The J-Pop Exchange

Due to Japan’s extension of a nationwide state of emergency to stop the spread of COVID-19, many internet cafes that house the homeless have had to close their doors, forcing their usual inhabitants to seek refuge elsewhere.

Although the measures are far less restrictive than those introduced in the US and Europe, the state of emergency urges people to work from home; encourages bars, nightclubs, and internet and manga cafes to remain shut; and restricts entry for most international travelers. The move allows regional governments to urge people to stay inside, but without punitive measures or legal force.

"The number of new cases has declined, but unfortunately the decrease has not reached the targeted level," Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, said during a meeting Monday with an expert panel advising the government on the pandemic.

Abe said extending the state of emergency that was due to expire May 6 to May 31 was necessary to remove some of the strain on hospitals that have been overcrowded with COVID-19 patients.

While the state of emergency extension is an essential step to help “flatten the curve” -- which refers to community isolation measures that keep the daily number of disease cases at a manageable level for medical providers -- many of Japan’s most vulnerable citizens, such as the unemployed and the homeless, are falling through the cracks.

Thousands of people normally rely on internet or manga cafes for shelter and a place to sleep. The fee is around ¥1400 to ¥2400 yen ($13 to $23 USD) for one night, and may include free soft drinks, TV, manga, and internet access.  Typically, people who live in internet cafes are unemployed or underemployed and cannot afford to rent even the cheapest apartment, which is more than the cost per month to check in at an internet cafe daily.

Because of the circumstances due to the pandemic, Tokyo authorities have committed to providing emergency housing to support those who, under normal circumstances, live in internet cafes.  On April 30, Hatanaka Kazuo, a spokesperson for the Tokyo metropolitan government, said the city's authorities will provide internet cafe refugees with a room in a business hotel. To qualify, people need to present an internet cafe membership card or bring receipts to an informational desk at each hotel ward to prove they have previously been living in internet cafes.

Elsewhere in different hotels across Tokyo, robots are on hand to greet and help certain Japanese coronavirus patients.

To ease the load on nurses and doctors, Tokyo opened several hotels to house patients who are sick with COVID-19, but not sick enough to require hospitalization.  Japan has secured more than 10,000 hotel rooms around the country to put up patients with lighter symptoms, according to the Health Ministry. And in order to staff the hotels safely, several robots now work in the hotels.

At one coronavirus-sanctioned hotel, a robot named “Pepper” with wide eyes and a face mask greets patients in the lobby. “Please, wear a mask inside,” it tells the visitors. “I hope you recover as quickly as possible.”

Elsewhere in the hotel, another robot with the latest artificial intelligence technology cleans and sanitizes parts of the hotel that have been deemed “Red Zones,” where human staff is limited or restricted.

The number of confirmed and documented coronavirus cases in Japan is now up to 15,253 as of Monday afternoon (5/4/2020); 4,496 people have recovered and 556 have died.

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