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Coronavirus disinfection workers face discrimination and unreasonable conditions in Japan

A member of Trained & Educated Allied Members for Sanitation (TEAMS) in a hazmat suit disinfects the inside of an ambulance. (Photo courtesy of Tokyo Pest Control Association)

TOKYO -- Businesses that disinfect offices and other facilities where people have been confirmed to have COVID-19 in Japan are slammed with work these days. It's a job that's indispensable in preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus, but because it requires expertise, it's not a job that many are engaged in.

    Additionally, there is deeply rooted prejudice toward the novel coronavirus and those who come in contact with it, and workers are at times asked by their clients to do their disinfecting work without wearing the proper gear out of fears that people will find out their businesses have been exposed to the virus. Day after day, bogged down with concerns over discrimination and lack of manpower, workers head to the next location that needs to be disinfected.

    In late January, four workers from disinfecting company Pegasus Corp., based in Tokyo's Taito Ward, walked into a cosmetic surgery clinic. It was just past 10 p.m. Most disinfection is carried out after business hours, and can continue late into the night. At this clinic, one of the clerical workers was found to have been infected by the novel coronavirus.

    The Pegasus staff changed into hazmat suits and put on their protective gear, including goggles, rubber gloves, rubber boots and N95 masks. They were tasked with disinfecting "everything that people might touch." That meant that they would use an alcohol solution to wipe down pens for dry-erase boards, the receivers of telephones, the bottom sides of chairs, the walls of bathrooms, among other things and places.

    Due to the nature of the hazmat suits, the workers are covered in sweat. And once the protective wear is on, it's not easy to get out of it to go to the bathroom, so some workers apparently wear diapers when they work.

    Once the telephone receivers and other items are disinfected, the workers go on to disinfect the floor. Using a mist machine, they spray a hypochlorous acid solution on the floor and mop it up. On this day, in response to a request from the clinic, workers also spray an anti-viral disinfectant on the clinic's air conditioners.

    The whole process took about two hours. While workers took a break once, they merely ingested salt by sucking on candy.

    "The summers for sure, but working in offices in the winters with the heating on is also like hell," said a 39-year-old male Pegasus employee. That night, he and the other workers disinfected the approximately 500-square-meter space, and received around 200,000 yen (approx. $1,887) from the clinic.

    Disinfection orders have doubled since the third wave of the novel coronavirus hit Japan in December. Now, about 15 orders come in per day on average from a range of clients, including hospitals, nursing homes and offices.

    According to a public relations representative at Pegasus, only about 10% of sanitation businesses engage in novel coronavirus disinfection, to avoid the risk of infection.

    Perhaps because of that, when people who take part in novel coronavirus disinfection work come together at a site with sanitation workers who do not engage in novel coronavirus disinfection, the former are subjected to prejudice. One worker said that they were asked by a worker from another business operator to keep their uniform, which they had removed in the locker room, in a bag.

    It is not uncommon for such workers to be treated unreasonably. At a job to disinfect a dining establishment, workers were instructed not to put on their hazmat suits, because, the proprietor explained, they did not want others to know that an employee at their restaurant had been confirmed to have COVID-19. The workers had no choice but to disinfect the facility donning regular work wear. A worker who oversaw the job looked back on it and said, "Considering the risks, we wanted to work in our protective wear."

    When workers go to disinfect hospitals, they are often approached by COVID-19 patients who talk to them without wearing masks.

    The reason they continue to do this work, though, is because they learned through media reporting that in some cases, nurses at hospitals were doing disinfection work themselves. "Disinfection is our job. We want to be of help in any way to the medical workers who are doing their best."

    Disinfection requests for offices and other similar facilities go directly to private companies, but disinfection of ambulances that have transported COVID-19 patients and hotels where people with mild cases of COVID-19 go to recuperate go through the Tokyo Pest Control Association, comprising 125 Tokyo companies that engage in sanitation and disinfection.

    The association has an agreement with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the Tokyo Fire Department, and the Trained & Educated Allied Members for Sanitation (TEAMS) made up of member companies of the Tokyo Pest Control Association are on call 24 hours a day to disinfect in response to requests from either the metro government or the fire department.

    The number of times TEAMS has disinfected ambulances and similar vehicles has increased monthly; compared to 49 times in October 2020, the figure rose to 192 in December, and 360 in January 2021. The workers respond to calls in shifts, but there have not been enough people to cover all disinfection requests, leading TEAMS to turn down 20 to 30% of requests they receive. In such cases, firefighters themselves must go out to do disinfecting work.

    Of the 125 companies that are members of the Tokyo Pest Control Association, only 22 companies have workers who have undergone training regularly, such as on the correct way to put on and off hazmat suits, and are a part of TEAMS. And of those 22 companies, only about a dozen are able to respond to the disinfection of the novel coronavirus.

    "Because jobs also come in at night and early in the morning, companies that have many employees who have to take care of young children or elderly parents cannot respond to novel coronavirus disinfection requests," said Ryuichi Okumura, managing director of the Tokyo Pest Control Association, "We have been calling for more member companies to engage in novel coronavirus disinfection in order to fulfill requests from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, but the numbers won't budge. It's not a job you can do without a very strong sense of mission."

    (Japanese original by Mei Nanmo, City News Department)

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