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Don't work, don't earn: Japan drugstore part-timer hides viral symptoms to pay bills

The woman who works at drugstores and felt she had to hide potential symptoms of the novel coronavirus or lose her income is seen in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, on April 7, 2020. (Mainichi/Miyuki Fujisawa)

TOKYO -- Despite calls in the capital region and other parts of Japan to refrain from going outside and doing as much as they can from home, there are still many people across the country whose occupations require them to go out to their workplaces, and for whom no income is guaranteed if they don't do their jobs.

One of them is a 61-year-old woman who is employed part-time at two drugstores in Tokyo. Although she felt unwell in March, the woman continued to work out of fear of losing her job, and resolved to hide her infection if she had contracted the novel coronavirus.

Speaking to the Mainichi Shimbun, she spoke in detail about her difficulties and sense of crisis, saying, "There have to be many people just like me. As long as the government doesn't provide cash benefits for everyone, there's no point in the state of emergency declaration."

As coronavirus infections became widespread in in March, long lines began forming each morning in front of the pharmacy where the woman worked. With each passing day, customers would become angrier, with some pressing staff with questions as to why certain goods were out of stock, with some even accusing workers of hiding the products.

While waiting in line, some customers would push employees to tell them how much of a certain item was still available, and some made their rage known to the store's manager. Although signs at the shop indicated each customer could only buy one of some products, some people would still try to line up repeatedly to get at the goods.

It was in the midst of this rush that the woman realized that she was starting to feel sick. The woman developed a slight fever and a cough which persisted for four to five days, and the thought that it might be a coronavirus infection crossed her mind. But she decided to keep her fears quiet, because airing them would have caused her earnings to disappear, and they could lead to the store having to be closed for a period.

Long lines of customers are seen outside a pharmacy in Musashino, Tokyo, on March 5, 2020. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Fujii)

The woman continued working without mentioning her symptoms to her employer. Fortunately, she recovered from her ailment while taking over-the-counter medicine, leading her to think that it had probably just been a cold. But her concerns were replaced with a fear that many other people in Japan must be experiencing the same circumstances.

For years, the woman had worked in professions relating to the stage, but around five years ago she developed a serious condition in her legs, and her income from her main occupation fell. Although continuing to teach dance lessons, she also signed up with a company for temporary dispatch workers, and began working countless different part-time roles.

At one point, the woman worked in a huge warehouse used by a major clothes and daily products maker. She would carry sheets of products ordered for delivery and run around the warehouse looking for the corresponding goods. When she worked at the factory of a large cosmetics firm, she would put stickers on products, taking extra special care that there were no bends or blemishes when doing so.

She said that the conditions at those one-off jobs were dangerous for often being consistent with the "three Cs" of confined spaces, crowded places and close contact with people, all states that the government advises are most conducive to infection. The woman described often working in rooms with no windows, and instances where break rooms would heave with many others taking a rest at the same time.

The woman began working at two drugstores, starting in the early hours and working through the morning. She also works at the stores late into the night, and remains there after they close to do stock arrangements and other duties. The work places a relatively low physical burden on her, and right before the commotion from the novel coronavirus began, the woman felt she had finally found some stability in her life again.

But at the end of March, she cautioned a customer, who lines up at the shop each morning, for repeatedly buying goods that shoppers are only allowed to buy in limited amounts. After that, she was subject to days of repeated resistance from them pushing her to quit her job, and shop management felt they had no recourse but to tell her to start working at another of their stores.

As part of the fallout from the incident, her number of working days has fallen, and she now expects to earn less than 100,000 yen (around $926) next month.

Shelves empty of masks and other products are seen in Gunma Prefecture on March 9, 2020. (Mainichi/Hinako Kikuchi)

The woman now only holds dance lessons on weekdays. Additionally, student numbers have fallen across the board, with many children having been taken off them, and other students returning to their family homes elsewhere over fears of infection. Now, she worries everyday about how to pay the 160,000 yen needed to cover her monthly rent at home and the fees for the studio she uses.

Despite the state of emergency declaration, many drugstores are continuing to stay open for business on reduced hours. People's time home has increased too, so demand has risen not just from customers to the store, but also from orders placed online.

As part of its emergency rescue package, the Japanese government has announced that households which have experienced a loss in their income can send a self-declaration to receive a 300,000 yen cash payment.

But the woman says that she expects to be among the people ineligible for the bailout. The payment requirements are strict, and she added, "There are many people out there who don't have the luxury of time to put together documents proving their income from last year."

Part-timers often have shallow work relationship, and the woman says it's doubtful that information is sufficiently being circulated among them. "If there aren't cash payments made available soon, then I think many people will continue to work while hiding that they are sick. To stop those people becoming a source of further infections, they need an environment in which they can rest without anxiety."

(Japanese original by Miyuki Fujisawa, Integrated Digital News Center)

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