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Online bashing of coronavirus-infected woman in Japan counterproductive: experts

A high-ranking official of the welfare and health division of the Yamanashi Prefectural Government calls for those living outside of the prefecture to refrain from returning to their hometown in a news conference on May 4, 2020. (Mainichi/Keisuke Umeda)

TOKYO -- Experts have criticized the online bashing of a woman infected with the novel coronavirus who falsely reported her travel itinerary, warning internet users they could be violating the law by exposing her personal information while hindering the fight against the virus by discouraging other infected people from coming forward.

The woman visited her hometown in Yamanashi Prefecture, west of Tokyo, during the "Golden Week" holiday period and later tested positive for the novel coronavirus. After falsely reporting the day she returned to Tokyo, she was subjected to a barrage of online criticism, and some users tried to identify her real name and address.

The Yamanashi Prefectural Government on May 2 outlined the events leading up to confirmation of the woman's infection. According to its timeline, the woman had worked in Tokyo until April 28 and visited her parents' home in Yamanashi the following day by highway bus, despite having lost her sense of taste and smell -- a commonly cited symptom of COVID-19 -- on April 26. During the time back in her hometown, the woman went to a barbecue party at a friend's house, among other activities.

After a colleague at her work was confirmed to have contracted the virus on April 30, the woman made an inquiry at a public health center counter. According to the prefectural government, a hospital requested that she wait at home while waiting for the results of a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, but the woman returned to Tokyo by highway bus on the night of May 1 before the test results had come back. Prefectural officials said her test came back positive on May 2.

However, on May 3, the prefectural government revised its original statement, and said that the woman had actually returned to her home in Tokyo on May 2, after her test results came back positive. Prefectural government officials explained that the misunderstanding was caused as the woman and her relatives had made false claims.

Following this announcement, the woman became the target of online criticism, with Twitter users leaving comments such as "This is an act of terrorism that is no different from the deadly sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system (in 1995)," and, "Those who became infected without following requests to stay at home do not deserve the right to receive treatment or the right to use hotels (for temporary accommodation)." Another Twitter user even stated, "She cannot get away with it just by being charged with assault. It's attempted murder." Information claiming to list her real name, workplace, and a picture of her face, was also circulated online, though its credibility was unknown.

At the same time, other users expressed concern that as a result of such criticism, those who contracted the virus would not be able to speak the truth due to societal pressure, further raising the number of cases whose route of infection remains unknown.

"There have been instances where unrelated parties were dragged into the issue, and a case of mistaken identification is bound to happen sometime," one user commented.

Yoichiro Tateiwa, a journalist who specializes in fact-checking of online resources, pointed out that although the woman's behavior was irresponsible, it does not infringe the law, and exposing the personal data of an individual who is not a public figure is a crime in itself. Tateiwa commented, "There may be an unpleasant atmosphere being produced by individuals who are in need of finding a target to attack in order to release their negative emotions while stress accumulates amid requests for self-restraint (due to the pandemic)."

Tateiwa also raises questions over local government and media disclosure of detailed information that could lead to identification of an individual, warning that such disclosures could result in unemployment or suicide.

In the case of the woman, the Yamanashi Prefectural Government disclosed the range of her activities as well as the number of members in her family. The woman said she made false claims and returned home prematurely as she was worried about her pet dog. The prefectural government had organized a dedicated team to confirm patients' actions following the first reported infection in the prefecture. In that case, prefectural officials struggled to identify those who came into close contact with the infected man, as he neglected to tell prefectural officials that he had worked at a local convenience store.

The head of Toyama Institute of Health, Kazunori Oishi, spoke of the difficulty of balancing measures to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus with the protection of individuals' privacy.

"The disclosure of detailed information is unavoidable for raising the level of alertness for those around the infected individual, but information spreads rapidly in regions with small communities, and individuals are likely to be subject to slander after their infection is confirmed," he said. "The number of people who report their infections may decrease, which could impede countermeasures against coronavirus infection. For the purpose of gaining honest cooperation in epidemiological research, people should avoid attacking individuals."

Masanori Tsujita, a researcher and expert on modern history, commented, "The perceptions of people have grown numb in this unusual time, and residents are excessively monitoring one another's actions in connection with requests to stay at home. This is similar to the self-policing system of 'Tonarigumi' neighborhood associations (which served to regulate speech and expression) during World War II. Individuals may be able to resist their inner urges if they exercise their imagination and realize that anyone could become infected, with the same issues rebounding to them."

(Japanese original by Fusayo Nomura, Integrated Digital News Center)

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