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21 Japan SDF members in Africa have coronavirus, 130 attended base party in March

The Ministry of Defense is seen in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward. (Mainichi/Masahiro Ogawa)

TOKYO -- A total of 21 Japan Self-Defense Force (SDF) personnel at a base of operations in Djibouti in East Africa have been confirmed infected with the coronavirus, the Ministry of Defense reported on April 7.

    The personnel, aged between their 20s and 40s, are in the region to support activities against piracy off the coast of Somalia and the Gulf of Aden. It emerged April 8 that at the end of March around 130 of the approximately 180 staff at the SDF base attended a sports event and a subsequent social gathering where alcohol was served.

    The Ministry of Defense commented, "The possibility that an infected individual took part in the events cannot be ruled out." The ministry said it was investigating who was involved and if thorough preventive measures were taken.

    It additionally came to light that two of the infected personnel ate and drank while off-base during official business in late March, and that they hadn't informed their unit they would before doing so.

    The SDF base was established as a facility adjoining Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport, and contains an administrative section, barracks, hangars for patrol aircraft and other sections.

    A total of around 110 personnel dispatched to the base from the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force and the Japan Marine Self-Defense Force (MSDF) to assist in anti-piracy activities are assigned to duties including procurement of supplies and equipment, and maintenance of each department. In addition, about 70 MSDF personnel also use the base to operate patrol aircraft as part of a flying corps.

    According to the Defense Ministry, the social gathering was held after the sports event, at the gymnasium on the base. Enough beer to serve about a single can per attendee was prepared at the event. After the social event was over, some personnel continued drinking at a welfare facility on the base.

    Four members of the anti-piracy support group later developed fevers and complained of headaches, among other symptoms, and on April 2 and 3 they were given simple antibody tests at a medical ward on the base. All four tested positive for the coronavirus.

    With help from the Djibouti military and other parties, more accurate polymerase chain reaction tests were conducted on all of the base's personnel. Numerous results came back positive, but there were no serious cases.

    According to the Joint Staff Office, in response to the spread of the coronavirus around the world, the SDF personnel at the Djibouti base tested negative for the virus before they were sent there. It also said that private outings from the base in Djibouti fundamentally do not take place.

    (Japanese original by Yoshitake Matsuura, City News Department)

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