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Student abused online after Japan univ. gives inaccurate report on coronavirus infection

A blog that published unfounded claims about a student in Japan who was infected with the novel coronavirus is seen in this screen capture.

SENDAI -- A man in the capital of the northeastern prefecture of Miyagi who along with his son tested positive for the novel coronavirus has described to the Mainichi Shimbun his experience of its painful physical symptoms, and also the psychological abuse leveled at his son after a misunderstanding over his movements was made public.

A company employee in his 50s, the man said he was coughing so violently that he thought he was going to die, while his son, a university student, was subject to unjust criticism on the internet after his school published erroneous details about his case.

Reflecting on what's happened to them both, the man said, "Although we were victims, I feel we were treated like perpetrators, and like we're always being talked about behind our backs. I worry whether my son will be able to go to university safely."

On March 31, the man developed a fever of 38 degrees Celsius, and had a sore throat and strange feeling in his ears. Concerned by the symptoms, he went to a hospital in the city of Sendai to be checked out. There, he was told it was "just a cold," and was sent home with prescriptions for cold and fever medication. He stayed home, and on April 3 his fever dissipated.

But on April 4 it returned, before passing again on April 5, only to come back a third time on the night of April 7 and reach 38.5 C. He described painful symptoms to the Mainichi, saying, "For about one to two hours I was coughing hard enough to cramp up my stomach muscles. I thought I might die." Fearing he had the novel coronavirus, he frantically tried to call the prefecture's call center, spending some two terrified hours unable to connect.

The next day he got a call from the local public health center, and received a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to identify whether he had the virus. To take the test, he went to the hospital in the family car, and samples were taken from his throat without him leaving the vehicle. The test came back positive.

On April 10 he was hospitalized and given a computed tomography (CT) scan of his lungs. A doctor told him over half of his lungs had come out pitch black in the test. He was then given Avigan, a medicine used to treat influenza, and Alvesco for bronchial asthma, and eventually was discharged on April 22 after twice testing negative for the coronavirus.

During his stay, he was kept in a private room with its own toilet and shower. A team of three doctors and a nurse checked on him twice a day. He said, "The doctors (perhaps due to equipment shortages) didn't wear plastic visors, and I was asked to turn to the side when I spoke to them." Although he couldn't leave the room, he said he didn't feel particularly inconvenienced while there.

But what he really worries about is his eldest son with whom he lives, a fourth-year student in his 20s at Sendai University. After the institution put out an explanation of his son's case that was later corrected, the student was exposed to sustained abuse and claims that he was a "liar" on social media.

Between March 22 and 27, his son was in Tokyo looking for work, and developed a fever on the night of March 27. He was diagnosed with a cold, but the fever persisted at 37.5 C or higher for at least four days. Although the student contacted the call center, his fever had already receded, making him no longer eligible for a test. From then onward, he started to go out again as he would do ordinarily.

But after his father's positive diagnosis, he was tested and confirmed to have the novel coronavirus on April 11. He, too, was hospitalized.

The student tried to report his situation to the university, but because it was a weekend he called the adviser of his extracurricular club instead. On the call, he was asked whether he had gone out or not, but because he was surprised by the sudden question he ended up responding, "No."

The next day, the university put out a notice on its website without checking with him. It read, "The student returned from Tokyo, and stayed home consistently from then on." After the university received a full explanation from him, the text was amended on April 15 to say that he "visited the home of a friend, and worked at his part-time job."

Information about the university's correction then spread online, and claims that the student had hid his infection in order to go out swirled. A newspaper headline reading "Sendai University student gives false report of coronavirus infection" got picked up on Twitter, which drove numerous responses including, "He lied and went out to have fun," and, "So is it alright for people to die for something that's your fault?" on Twitter.

The end of the statement from the university read, "After confirming the new facts, the public health center was informed." But in reality, the student had reported his trips outside to the same center immediately after the test they administered came back positive. A person in charge at the Sendai public health center told the Mainichi, "We always ask questions about whether people went out, used public transport or made other movements after the onset of symptoms."

Once information is out on the internet, it can be difficult to contain it. The hospitalized student has been shocked by the thoughtless messages he has been getting, and has fallen into a depressive state. "They made the announcement (on the website) without our consent, and without properly checking the facts. I really don't get the sense that they're trying to protect their students," the student's father said, unable to conceal his anger toward the university.

Sendai University's Vice President Hitoshi Takahashi responded to the case, saying, "We are deeply sorry that one of our students has been subject to mental abuse." He went on to acknowledge that the initial investigation and fact-checking had not been sufficient. Regarding the announcement on the website, he said that a decision had been made to promptly notify other students and locals that someone had become infected with the novel coronavirus.

(Japanese original by Ami Jinnai, Sendai Bureau)

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