By ALEXINE CASTILLO YAP (PEAK JEA, Y3)
As the world battles the COVID-19 pandemic, which has now resulted in nothing less than the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to 2021, and the recent declaration of a state of emergency by the Tokyo government following an exponential growth of positive cases and a mounting global death toll, the question looms: should the University of Tokyo officially suspend in-person classes this semester? Is it too unsafe to come to campus for classes?
If you speak English and attend UTokyo, there’s a little over a 1-in-2 chance that you think so. The results of a survey released by the Komaba Times in March for English-speaking UTokyo students revealed that over 50% of respondents (33 of 63 respondents in total) do not feel safe attending in-person classes on campus for the coming spring/summer 2020 semester. Only 17.7% – less than a fifth – of respondents felt that it is safe to attend classes on campus. Classes are, in fact, to be conducted online, though there has not been a hard campus lockdown yet as of this writing.
Source: Komaba Times, 2020
This above result corresponded with over half (51.6%) of respondents holding the opinion that the university should officially suspend in-person classes. Nevertheless, over a quarter (27.4%) believed that the university should still keep the option of having in-person classes
Source: Komaba Times, 2020. The blue and purple fields in this graphic represent options written/suggested by the respondents themselves.
Granted, the university has not been entirely passive in responding to the crisis in order to ensure the health and safety of its students, faculty and staff, as well as the community at large. As of this writing, the university has implemented a number of response strategies, including a task force installed at Komaba Campus to respond to COVID-19 and announcing that the campus is on “stage orange”, shifting most classes online and halting all extracurricular activities. Most professors have opted to follow these directions, as a quick perusal through the course catalogue or the UTAS system would suggest.
However, it must be noted that by the time the survey closed – March 29, 2020 – the number of new cases identified in Tokyo and in Japan has grown considerably; Tokyo had just seen a record number of 100+ testing positive on April 4th, 2020. The capital now has almost 900 confirmed cases alone, as opposed to just 430 on March 29th (Tokyo Metropolitan Government, 2020). Thus, with cases mounting exponentially every few days, student perceptions about the safety of in-person classes, as well as the need for the university to take a more stringent approach, such as a campus lockdown, are likely set to change.
Experts have long voiced worrying concerns that the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Tokyo represents merely a fraction of the true number of cases, noting that Japan has yet to reach its peak number of cases. Many, if not most, of these cases will go undetected, as COVID-19 can be carried even by asymptomatic persons. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that community transmission is one major way through which the virus spreads. Unwitting carriers can spread the virus to vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, immunocompromised people or those with underlying medical conditions, hence the adoption of social distancing, quarantining, and even lockdowns by governments all over the world. The WHO states that the virus can be carried through physical contact as well as through droplets in the air. Considering how highly contagious COVID-19 is, it is no wonder such drastic steps have been taken.
Moreover, the relatively low COVID-19 testing per capita rate in Japan is a cause of concern for epidemiologists, public health officials and health workers. Although some public health officials have argued that Japan sees no need for mass-testing since overtesting could overwhelm healthcare centres (like in Italy), many have doubted this strategy; studies show that success has been seen in countries that have implemented lockdown measures with high testing per capita rates. These nations have since “flattened” their COVID-19 curve. For example, South Korea, despite an explosion of cases in February, has since been lauded for its curve thanks to a quick and easy drive-through testing method that combined effective isolation and tracing tactics. Taiwan benefited from early response and preparation. On the other hand, Japan’s rise in cases is projected to skyrocket.
Some have regarded Japan’s reluctance to test and its relatively lax measures to stem the COVID-19 tide as suspicious– curiously, Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike’s request for Tokyoites to observe social-distancing methods came almost immediately after the Tokyo Olympics were postponed. Whatever the relative lack of testing in Japan suggests, it has been demonstrated that a swift, decisive response, coupled with a clear, comprehensive understanding of the extent of the spread of the virus through testing, is a tried-and-true strategy to effectively alleviate, if not “crush”, the curve, absent a vaccine.
As it stands, it is apparent that a large proportion of English-speaking students do not feel that it is safe to attend classes on campus, and should the number of cases continue to rise exponentially in Tokyo as a result of ineffective government and community responses, perceptions of campus safety may, in turn, only continue to plummet.
Editors’ note: We hope everyone is staying healthy and safe! Thank you to everyone who answered our survey in March! Due to the instability of the current situation,
we are releasing a follow-up survey that will help us know more about your needs/concerns regarding health, safety, education, finance, etc., and continuously produce useful and timely content in English for students at the University of Tokyo. Kindly take the survey through this link: https://forms.gle/Po61LPA62J7PczPZ6 The survey requires a Google sign-in, but we will not ask for nor release any personal information that would compromise your identity.