How the Coronavirus also (or mostly) kills uninfected people in Japan.

A country torned by mental health issues.

Just a few days after many European countries issued a national lockdown, everyone understood what they had been taking for granted until then: social interaction. Even if the strongest minds weren’t much bothered by isolation, experts were not only concerned about the severely ill infected patients, but also about the mentally vulnerable uninfected people.

On April 1st 2020, a very interesting article by Anna Carthaus was published on Deutsche Welle, called “Coronavirus and mental health: We are not made for social isolation”. It contained a very interesting prediction by Ute Lewitzka, the chairwoman of the German Society for Suicide Prevention: “In times of natural disasters, we see that suicide rates can even temporarily drop. Things can get critical when the event is over, […] and people realize what has been destroyed during such an event. Suicidal tendencies can definitely increase again then.”

Given this premise, a lot of Sociologists’ attention shifted to Japan, given its well-known widespread social issue of high suicide rates. The latter country registered a record high in 2003, when around 34,000 people took their own lives. Since then, the Japanese Government invested lots of time and resources around suicide prevention. Sadly Lewitzka’s foreboding came true, being the most evident in Japan.

Strikingly, the amount of suicides that took place there in October was 2,158, surpassing the total amount of deaths caused by Coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic (that corresponds to 2,141 as of the 4th of December 2020).

This data seems to suggest us how in some countries, the battle against a pandemic is no harder than the one against mental health issues. According to CNN, this phenomenon is primarily due to long working hours, school pressure, social isolation and a cultural stigma around mental health issues. Moreover, let’s not forget the Japanese practice of the “Honor suicide”, that consists in the act of people taking their own life in order not to face the shame of a failed or immoral action.

The biggest slice of the October 2020 suicides belongs, as always in the Japanese history, to adult men. Historically, a reason for that is overworking: after the end of WWII, the strongest efforts in the country were directed to rebuilding the Economy. Thomas Looser, associate Professor at NYU, added: “The Prime Minister says [note: he was making use of the historical present] we’re gonna have income doubling and 100% employment. And the idea then becomes […] the Company is your family. You will do everything you can for your family.”

Graph: Nikkei Stock Index through the years, representing also the big recession that took place in the 90s. Notice how there’s a correspondence around 2003 between the low stock value and the high suicide rates reported above in the article. Source

Eventually Japan achieved a technologically advanced economy, and it became extremely powerful between the 70s and the 80s, also thanks to having he world’s highest literacy rate and high education standards. But it cost and still costs the mental and physical health of the individual workers.

Here’s a late 2017 short documentary about this problem:

 What’s important to add is that Japan didn’t even experience a lockdown, unlike, for example, many EU countries. But still many sectors, like the travel one, have been hit by the pandemic; as the South China Morning Post reports, the Kintetsu travel group revealed it was closing 60 per cent of its outlets and restructuring its operations.

According to a survey by Professor Michiko Ueda of Tokyo’s Waseda University, one in three females under the age of 40 suffered job losses and significant hits to their income. Instead, just 18% of men of the same age had the same treatment. As a result of sexism and non-regular work, compared to October 2019, the female suicide rate went up by 80%. Moreover, as a global study by CARE revealed, 27% of women reported increased challenges with mental health during the pandemic, compared to 10% of men.

Jun Okumura, an analyst at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs added: “It is not as bad as it was in the past, but there is still a stigma attached to a man acknowledging that he has a problem and then opening up about it. And that is not going to change rapidly, and certainly not in the space of time that the pandemic will impact working life here.”

Alessandro Delogu

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