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【Online Interview Series】No. 2: Seth Berkman, a regular contributor to The New York Times (U.S.)

post date : 2020.06.17

”How Has the World Been Dealing with the COVID-19 Pandemic?”


~No. 2: Seth Berkman, a regular contributor to The New York Times (U.S.)




The second interview in this series is with Mr. Seth Berkman, a regular contributor to The New York Times (U.S.). Mr. Berkman visited Japan in 2016 as a panelist for the FPCJ 40th Anniversary Symposium, and researched stories on the current situation of female athletes in Japan and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. This interview was held on June 8, 2020, the same day New York City began reopening its economy, and Mr. Berkman spoke about what life was like there and expectations for after the pandemic. He also discussed Japan’s response to COVID-19, as well as Americans’ interest in it and daily life in Japan.


*Please be aware the video suffers from some feedback issues. 


【Full Text of Interview】

 Q1. How do you view the Japanese response to the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Japan’s response seems so incongruous to much of the rest of the world. Just then, people examining the long history of the Japanese population where wearing a mask is kind of common and it's not seen as something out of the ordinary, and perhaps that being ingrained in everyday Japanese life in some ways, maybe helped their response to the pandemic, as opposed to places like here in the West, where we're not that accustomed to having that as part of our daily life. And so perhaps in our initial response, because there wasn't that level of history of wearing masks, maybe that is why Japan's response seems to be different.

I know in the West, in the US, it seemed like a lot of early reports coming out of Japan were that Japan had what was seen like a slow response, you look at what happened on the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship and it seemed like initiatives weren't taken fast enough to handle that outbreak. And then into April I believe you were reading about bars and public spaces still remaining open much longer than they were in other countries, and how Japan was a bit late to implement social distancing. I remember speaking to a friend of mine who lives in Tokyo, and she sent me a video, I believe it was in mid-April, and it was a video that seemed to be making the rounds in Japan, just because there was a singer, and then it was a split screen with (Prime Minister) Abe with his dog and other things. People were kind of mocking him I think in that response and it was maybe a way to let go some of this, I don't know if anger is the correct word, but kind of this frustration with the slow response from the Japanese government.

I think because there hasn't been a definitive picture, I would say, of information coming out of Japan and Japan’s response to the pandemic here, so I think maybe that has led to some of the curiosity and just unknowns that people in the US have about Japan's response. Very much so it seems when people talk about Japan and how they responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, it's painting in broad strokes and, as I mentioned before, this bit of a mystery of what's going on, why have outbreaks not been as bad there as other places of the world?

I remember hearing some discussions and reading some things about how in America, as you can see with news coverage here, there's a portion of the population where whenever people think of this idea of your civil liberties being infringed on, people will become very passionate about defending that, normally people of more conservative or right wing backgrounds, this idea of, you know, too much. They're not for too much government interference and maybe some people make the argument in Japan or other countries in Asia the population is maybe more willing to adhere to government orders. I don't think people here necessarily take that as fact, they think you have to be careful when bringing up points like that. You don't want to create these kinds of cultural tropes and attach them to one segment of the population over the other.

I think people in the US, when you look back a month ago, I think the biggest news about Japan and the pandemic was revolving around the Olympics, with the Tokyo Games scheduled for this summer, and it seemed American sports leagues, and sports all around the world for that matter, were postponing or canceling their seasons. The Olympics, for the Summer Olympics, did take a much longer time and I think in one case that all can be put upon Japan or the Japanese government, obviously the National Olympic Committee has huge stakes and billions of dollars invested in this event going off this summer. So obviously they likely had a say in that as well but I think that just kind of added to this curiosity from people in the US of why was maybe Japan taking a bit longer to postpone mass gatherings and the Olympics and implement social distancing rules.

I do think it's interesting some of the things that I've read about Japan culturally that had maybe happened during this pandemic. I read an article I remember about how over the past month or the past few months, Japanese men were helping more at home where traditionally most of the work was put upon the woman in the household. And now men in Japan, Japanese families had adjusted to taking care of a lot more of the duties at home. There was, I don't know how big of a story it was in Japan, but I thought it was interesting how, again, people in the population, there was a little snafu about sending masks out to people in Japan and there are these cloth masks, I believe, but a lot of them were too small. And so when Japan started to make these implementations to try and combat the virus there were these little things that people were picking up around the government response that they were not happy about. Although, I think compared to a lot of the government reaction when you talk about the federal government here in the US, we never had a mask program where the government was going to supply masks to every person who lives here, there were definitely localized efforts and even in New York City places where you could go get a mask or if you went to a park people would be handing them out, but it wasn't this kind of concerted all-encompassing effort from the government to target every single person in the population here.




So overall, in general, at least in my case and I think a lot of people who at least have been staying abreast and keeping up with other responses in the world to the coronavirus, when it comes to Japan, there's a lot of interest, and a lot of curiosity, and uncertainty. And I think as time goes on, it would be interesting to see if there are definitive factors that people can draw on to what Japan did and has been doing to combat this virus, because, as I mentioned earlier, the whole thing with the culture of wearing masks has been perhaps one of the main reasons, even though other implementations like social distancing didn't come along until much later. So I think people, journalists and residents, here in the US will be interested probably not only in Japan but other countries around the world that have done a job, of seeming being able to really do a good job of combating this virus and see what has worked and what hasn't as we continue to go on and deal with outbreaks and clusters that come up.




Q2. How has life in Newyork changed with the COVID-19 pandemic? 

【New York life "reopening" slowly on June 8】

It's interesting to think of, I've always thought, that there are many things similar to how life in Tokyo is to life in New York City where I live, just in terms of the massive population and kind of the rush of people and so much reliance on public transportation. Here in New York life has really, it's starting slowly, I guess you can say, the returning back to normal. Actually today was the first day that “reopening” happened in New York City. So there are these stages in the state of New York, where every region, there are about six seven regions, I believe, throughout the state so not just New York City, the whole state of New York. And you have to meet these guidelines before you can “reopen” and so New York City was actually the last one to meet these guidelines and today was the first day that they started what they call phase one of reopening. And what that means is that construction work can start up again, retail shops can operate, you still can’t go in and shop as you would normally in a store but you can place orders ahead of time or pick things up, schedule pickups beforehand. Much more people, I believe I saw a statistic that said, at least, 400,000 people or so, went back to work today and that's a lot, the unemployment rates here in the United States, I think, country wide we're over 20% of the population. You had 6 million people applying for unemployment each week for a while in April and May.

And so just today we kind of reached that first phase, at least in New York City, of reopening, but for the past two months, two and a half months, it was a different life for just about everyone here, except for those essential workers, those workers in the hospitals. What that meant was so much of your life became centered around where you live, working through Zoom meetings, basically attached to your computer in terms of handling meetings and conducting work and one of the things that made that really hard was, I don't have children myself, but all the schools were closed so all the classes turned to homeschooling or virtual schooling, and it really varied by experience. There were students that didn't have laptops at home or did not have free Wi Fi service and so they either dropped out completely or, there were teachers or principals who had to provide those resources for those students.

【The lockdown---so much of your life became centered around where you live】

One of the things that the lockdown quarantine here in New York really magnified was this breakdown of class and economics and the haves and have nots. The coronavirus deeply affected low income neighborhoods, neighborhoods traditionally with large populations of black Americans, Hispanic Americans, people living below the poverty line. These are places that maybe didn't have hospitals in their neighborhoods, or if they did, they were public hospitals. They weren't these well-financed private hospitals. Here in the US, as you may know, the US healthcare system, aside from not having anything like universal health care, it's broken down into private and public sectors and your income status is kind of a good signal for what kind of health care and access you can receive here in the US. So the coronavirus definitely shone a light on the disparities between higher income people and lower income residents. It was really interesting to see the worries that people had and looking back on it now you think, not to say you can downplay them or even laugh at them, but there were real worries that a lot of people had that seemed like trivial things. For example, in March, there became this big rush of people buying toilet paper and everyone thought for a while “Oh, we're gonna run out of toilet paper and so what's gonna happen.” So you would go to markets and drugstores and the shelves will be cleared of toilet paper. The same thing with Clorox wipes, which are disinfectant wipes, we have largely been told here that they do kill the coronavirus, so you still can't buy Clorox wipes in a store. The Clorox company won't be able to produce them again, I believe, until either this month or next month. And so, those have been things that have almost been cherished like gold to a lot of people, people would go on Amazon or other websites and markets and pay five, six, seven, eight times the price, just for a jar of Clorox wipes.

For me, a lot of my time was basically spent in my apartment for much of April. I really didn't leave my apartment. I only have a small studio here in New York City but that was hard. I am used to working from home, but to not actually leave your apartment is a bit different. I would only go, maybe twice, I went to the supermarket in April to buy groceries and then to do my laundry. A lot of New York City apartments don't have washer and dryers, so there are laundromats every few blocks. So to do my laundry or just go downstairs to pick up my mail in the mailbox and that was it. Tthe rest of my time was spent in my apartment, you did feel lethargic at times and you definitely felt cooped up.

I've noticed after April and May, when I started going outside, for example just going running in the morning, there is a difference to just how I feel mentally and physically. It has mattered a lot. So I think that's been important for people who have been and still are very worried about contracting this virus, to just have that time, whether it be half an hour or an hour, where you are outside or are able to go for a walk and are not cooped up into your apartment or your home. I know it's been really hard for people who have big families or who have children trying to do homeschooling and parents trying to work as well. There were worries even that the internet might shut down because everybody was at home and everybody was connected to the internet, whether that be for school or work, so this overload of internet usage shut down the internet.

In terms of my day now I wake up pretty early, like 6am, I go for a run in the morning and then I either read or check on emails from work. A lot of people, and I still do it now, I don't do it every day but for a while, at least, living in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo would give a press conference on TV every day, normally around 11:30 in the morning, where he would give an update on the statistics of people affected: how many deaths, how many intubations there were, how many tests were done. And so that became a daily thing, just these bar graphs that he would show, and it was comforting for a while when the coronavirus infections started to go down you would see the bar graph go down as well. Because you could actually see that changes were happening.

I would work in the afternoon and then have dinner, just kind of complete my day. But you were cooped up in your apartment the whole time. It's been really, really hard for a lot of people. There's been events like deaths, and you can’t visit a loved one who's either in a nursing home or a hospital just because of social distancing measures. I don't know any people directly, but I know, I would say, acquaintances who have had parents die and talk about how they weren't able to see them, or say goodbye to them, which is really hard for a lot of people. I do know some people that have had weddings postponed, things like that. It's been really hard, a big adjustment. I know it's affected a lot of people, not only losing their jobs but things like mental health, people are worried about and checking in on people a lot more.

【Takeaways from the pandemic lead to awakening and change to the systematic injustices】

Video calls have become much more credible in terms of checking up on people. One of the cool things is every night here at 7 pm they started this gathering where people would clap. So people would open up their windows and clap or bang pots and that was for the healthcare workers who were still working. As we're kind of entering the second, third month of this I think one of the most interesting things that has just been kind of a recent development is the protests that we have here for police brutality and racial injustice. I was reading an article in The New York Times last week by this author named Jenna Wortham and she made this really interesting point that's really stuck with me where she wrote how people living in the pandemic, it was everybody, and so for three months you had Americans living in what she called this state of hyper vigilance and anxiety coping with these feelings of uncertainty, fear and vulnerability. And these are things that black Americans experience on a regular basis. And so when you had the death of George Floyd a few weeks ago, those feelings and emotions that every American was experiencing being cooped up and worried and scared about coronavirus, maybe it led to this level of understanding or just this parallel, where they finally, maybe couldn't see it before, of what black Americans and minorities in this country go through almost on a daily basis. Perhaps that's one of the reasons why you see so many people now involved in these protests and being so active and vocal in terms of police brutality and actions like that. And so, if you ask how is life changed in the New York area, I think obviously there are the personal things that people would just stick to in terms of their schedule, but that's the biggest takeaway and I think that would be how this develops and how we look back on it. That's one of the takeaways from this terrible coronavirus pandemic,  it leads to this awakening and perhaps change to these systematic injustices that we had in this country for so long. That would be a really amazing kind of aspect of these past few months and the continuing months after this.


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