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Commuting Through Coronavirus

In a novella of mine I wrote about crowded commuter trains, and how they transport death in their carriages. This description was directly prompted by the 2003 arson attack on the Daegu subway in Korea, which took place at the beginning of the twelve years that I commuted to work on the Osaka City subway. The incident brought it home to me that a train, particularly a crowded subway carriage, offers no means of escape. From that moment on I spent my commute staring at the train windows. At least once per journey I would imagine using my mobile phone to break the window glass to escape. My phone was the hardest thing I carried with me on my way to work. Or would my house keys work better?

The subways and trains people use routinely and unthinkingly to commute to work or school are affected by major incidents every few years or so, a rate that cannot be called infrequent. The most significant disaster to take place on the subway in Japan over the last thirty years or so was the Tokyo subway sarin gas attack of 1995, while for overground trains there was the fatal Amagasaki derailment of 2005. Both these incidents, as well as the Daegu subway fire, occurred during the time of the morning commute, between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. They made clear the sheer vulnerability of being on a train at this time of day, when people could not maintain a human distance between themselves – this particular time of day, as opposed to the more peaceable ones when there are fewer passengers. Which is why I came to feel frightened about packed commuter trains. And why I thought constantly during my commute about how there was no escape from fire, from derailment, from poison gas.

During the swine flu pandemic of 2009 I was still commuting into work every day. As now, in 2020, masks vanished from the shelves as people stockpiled them. I looked on dispiritedly at the news stories of people queuing up from early morning to buy masks, hissing internally that doing so was impossible for me. The queues were made up of retirees and people able to stay at home on weekdays, people who said they were ‘doing it for their families’. They seemed to my eyes positively brimming with life. Looking at them I felt a violent sense of aversion.

Of course, when I stopped into the chemist after my working day was finished, the masks would all be gone. The problem was not mine alone – how was anybody who started work at 9 a.m. and left at 6 p.m. supposed to buy face masks, when the shops opened at 10 a.m. and sold out of masks by lunch? If you lived with family, maybe there would be someone at home who could join the queue. But what about those who lived alone? Would those who were already exhausted from work now have to sacrifice their days off to go and line up? When I got home, the TV focused on those lines outside of the shops. Lines of people who never had to worry about fire, derailment, or poison gas.

It occurred to me then that those of us taking the train to work without masks were like coal-mine canaries. We would be the first to fall, one by one, from our perches. We were already exposed to the dangers of fire, derailment and poison gas, now we were also on the front line of this world in which a virus was proliferating. Yet the news did not give us airtime. The starring role was reserved for the scramble for masks among those who didn’t have to commute.

The same thing is now happening in 2020. This time, the pandemic is predicted to last much longer than that of 2009. Nobody knows when it will end. And so the canaries are carried into danger day after day, with no end in sight.

Through the eyes of the novel coronavirus, commuters, mostly between twenty and sixty, are perhaps not the most attention-grabbing of presences. Unlike with the elderly, the virus can’t sink its fangs into them. But nor does it treat them as lightly as it does children. The virus is steadily but surely eating away at people of working age. We now know that people in their forties and fifties are particularly at risk of becoming seriously ill. It feels almost as though it took the virus a moment to latch onto the existence of workers. For a while after the COVID-19 outbreak, the news mostly covered the way the virus affects the elderly as opposed to the young, along with stories about the selfish actions of some (doubtless a very small proportion) of these generations. And yet the cohort which the virus will settle on as its obliging host is the working generation, the commuters who provide it with a convenient lifestyle.

‘It’s only those in the big companies who can work remotely,’ a friend told me. She is still going into work from Monday to Friday, commuting in an hour later than usual to avoid rush hour. My friend works for a company dealing in machine components, which falls into the category of a ‘small-or-medium sized business’, and she travels to work on the Sakai-suji and the Chūō lines, the two busiest lines on the Osaka Metro, which serve both commercial and business districts. She says that the number of passengers occupying the carriages has dropped off by about forty per cent compared to what they were like at the end of March. A mere forty per cent. The national government did not say, ‘You must not go to work!’, but ‘Please stop working, if you can?’. Sixty per cent (according to my friend) still find themselves unable to stop commuting.

‘Our company director comes in by car, so he doesn’t understand the dangers faced by employees commuting in on the train,’ my friend says. This state of affairs is not unique to her company, either; many who have the authority to decide whether or not people must come into work by train travel by car. The same was true in the twenty-employee company where I used to work. Maybe viewed from the perspective of the national or municipal government, a company appears as a homogenous body, but internally there is a divergence of interests between directors and staff. Employers say that they cannot pay salaries unless the company is running. Even now, the decision about halting work is deemed as much a ‘personal choice’ as it is at any other time, and so workers must risk harm to come into work.

On top of all this, my friend and her colleagues are being told not to get infected. Infections among employees will affect the company’s reputation, and would be an inconvenience to clients. And if too many people go off sick, the business will have to close. I should state here for the record that I’ve heard my friend complain about her work over the years, but my overall impressions of the company she works for is that it’s not too bad. For better or worse, it seems like an average small or medium Japanese business. And although her first job out of university was at a highly exploitative firm, which meant she spent her twenties moving between unstable jobs, she now makes an above-average salary compared to other women of the generation who graduated during the ‘Employment Ice Age’. She receives about 70,000 yen a month more than I did when I worked as a bookbinder at a geological survey company. Her company provides employee vacations, and I don’t get the impression that they don’t value their staff, and yet they are making their employees come to work while feeding them contradictory messages – come to work! don’t get infected! – which together form a double bind. I’m not saying that all small-or-medium businesses are like this, and apparently some clients and suppliers have instituted flexitime, which allows people to come in any time from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., but these are the exception rather than the norm. The Japanese government may be encouraging remote working, but there is a wide gap yawning between these messages and reality.

I can’t claim to know what these employers are thinking. Maybe some have no choice but to keep their businesses operating, because to cease trading means risking bankruptcy; maybe others have cash reserves but don’t see the need to use them with the situation being as it is. Perhaps for some, in the face of a global pandemic, keeping the company open and allowing life to proceed as normal generates a sense of security. Whatever their reason, it seems clear that in as far as they’re not directly ordered by the government to stop, owners will keep on doing business.

Another friend of mine works in medicine. She travels to work on the Yotsubashi line of the Osaka Metro and the express service on the JR Kyoto line. On the Yotsubashi line, she reports, every other seat is taken with very few people standing, while the express train is more crowded but still has the odd seat free here and there. She’s a social worker at the hospital, so she has to keep commuting in. ‘There’s still work for me to do, so of course I have to go,’ she says pragmatically. She feels anxious about interacting with clients and their families, but doesn’t feel it’s unfair that she has to do it – rather, she says she’s grateful that the increase in people working remotely has reduced the risks that those in the medical profession have to face when commuting. She wishes that all those businesses able to work remotely would do so. When she looks around her at her fellow passengers, all with masks on, it strikes her that quite possibly all of them are in the medical profession.

The company employee who has to keep riding the subway in the pandemic, and the medical worker who sees going into work as part of their professional responsibility: listening to them, I see that in order to reduce the burden on society as a whole, those of us who have the option of staying at home must do so. I also believe that the Japanese government needs to think about employers and employees separately. To repeat, I don’t have a clear picture of what employers are thinking. However, speaking from the perspective of a worker – let’s say someone working under a manager whose thinking was that regardless of the company’s financial reserves, it was best to keep the company up and running so as long it wouldn’t mean half its employees would be dead by tomorrow – then I would want the ability to take time off at my own discretion, to receive some form of financial compensation – for instance what I’d be entitled to in unemployment insurance would be fine – and to have a guarantee that I would be able to return to work when this was over.

On 26 May, the government announced the introduction of a new system where employees of small or medium businesses can apply directly for financial compensation. Eligibility for this kind of compensation is certainly important, but I would ask the government to consider also the importance of ensuring a smooth return to work for employees after they have chosen to take time off. We cannot have a situation where workers are criticised by their company for taking time off as a precautionary measure when not infected with the virus.

Until now, the Japanese government has attempted to steer a course through this situation by appealing to individuals: the practice of wearing masks to which the Japanese are habituated, washing hands, and refraining from going outside out of a sense of conscience. Yet its directives are being aimed at groups – groups in the form of companies, groups in the form of households. The government must be well aware that the virus is by nature one that divides people, yet in demanding that individuals socially distance while failing to distinguish between them on a policy level, it leaves many to fall between the cracks.

Those that have no choice but to continue commuting, given inadequate protections or compensation, are not the ones to blame here. I’d like to be able to spare them the risk, by going to work instead of them if I could, but the infuriating fact is that to do so would only play straight into the virus’ hands. I can’t believe it’s come to this, but do we want to let a parasite get the better of us all? I say no, so I wash my hands carefully, and stay home.


Image © The FreeLens

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