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What's behind false rumors that foreigners are entering Japan for free COVID-19 treatment?

Doctors are seen conducting a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test on a coronavirus patient with severe symptoms at an intensive care unit of Chiba University Hospital in Chiba's Chuo Ward on March 31, 2021. (Mainichi/Junichi Sasaki)

TOKYO -- Baseless rumors have gone viral on social media claiming that foreigners are visiting Japan to receive treatment for COVID-19 while taking advantage of publicly funded medical care. The Mainichi Shimbun examined the veracity of such claims.

    In Japan, expenses for treating the coronavirus are covered by public funds as a general rule, for both Japanese and foreign nationals alike. In January 2020, the coronavirus was specified as a "designated infectious disease" under the infectious disease control law, for which medical care is covered by public funds, from the perspective of preventing widespread transmission of the virus.

    As of January last year, there were actually a series of posts on Twitter that claimed there will be "a rise in foreigners' entering the country with the purpose of receiving treatment free of charge." Over a year since then, endless numbers of individuals are still spreading claims such as, "There may be people who enter the country as medical bills are high in their home countries," and "If COVID-19 is removed from the 'designated infectious diseases' category, there won't be any people who come to Japan." Furthermore, others assert online, "Patients are visiting Japan today, as always, with the purpose of receiving publicly funded treatment."

    In other words, such parties seemingly want to claim that people from overseas who have contracted the coronavirus are coming to Japan with the intention to receive free COVID-19 treatment.

    However, much deliberation should not be required to realize the absurdity of this theory. To begin with, those who can manage to come to Japan despite being infected would be limited to individuals with no symptoms and those with mild symptoms that have not developed a fever and who can endure a long flight. Airlines do not allow infected individuals to board planes, and also subject all passengers to temperature checks. Would individuals go to such lengths to come to Japan in spite of having no particular symptoms and there being no guarantee that the disease will be cured for certain?

    A container for holding samples and equipment for polymerase chain reaction tests is seen in this June 2, 2020 file photo taken at Osaka City Juso Hospital in the city's Yodogawa Ward. (Mainichi/Rei Kubo)

    Needless to say, travel expenses to Japan would be shouldered by foreign individuals on their own. There may be cases where a one-way trip costs anywhere from tens of thousands of yen to a little under 200,000 yen (from several hundred dollars to somewhere under $1,900), while a round trip can cost hundreds of thousands of yen (thousands of dollars). Would there be people who spend this much to come all the way to Japan just to receive "free medical treatment"? Moreover, in this country, coronavirus vaccinations among the public have not seen much progress, and there is currently no remedy with striking effectiveness.

    Regarding these rumors, a specialist officer of the screening section of the Justice Ministry's Immigration Services Agency, which presides over immigration checks, said with an annoyed tone, "I've never heard of such cases occurring before. In practical terms, the system isn't set up in a way that allows infected individuals to enter the country easily."

    Currently, regardless of nationality, all individuals entering Japan must take coronavirus tests at local medical institutions in accordance with specified methods within 72 hours prior to departure, and receive certification of testing negative, or they will be unable to gain entry. That is to say, foreigners seeking coronavirus treatment in Japan would need to forge certification. They must also slip through temperature checks by airlines. On top of this, they will be able to receive publicly funded treatment only after they are confirmed to have tested positive for the coronavirus during airport quarantine inspections.

    "However, where do the merits lie in going to such lengths of paying high air fares? Furthermore, foreign individuals from the United States, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia and other countries are rejected from landing in Japan in principle. Thus, visas are not issued, so these individuals cannot even leave the country," said the Immigration Services Agency official.

    Booths set up to conduct antigen tests in the quarantine station at Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture are seen in this photo taken on Aug. 17, 2020. (Mainichi/Tadakazu Nakamura)

    However, visas are issued in some cases on humanitarian grounds or in other "special circumstances" where individuals are spouses or children of Japanese nationals or of permanent residents of Japan. However, the official said that "even in such cases, there is rigorous screening conducted by local embassies and other bodies." They also added, "Even if you slip through that and a visa is granted, there is no difference in that it is necessary to obtain negative certification and pass airline temperature checks."

    The official said, "To go to such lengths and pay a massive amount of money to come to Japan for publicly funded treatment is unlikely, theoretically speaking. Do people who send out such information rely on a specific source?"

    Even though one can easily conclude that the theory is ridiculous when giving it a bit of thought, why are posts along the same lines spreading and going viral even after more than a year has passed since the initial entries?

    There has also been a case of prejudice in the past that linked a new infectious disease with foreigners. When AIDS became a global topic, discrimination against foreigners and overseas countries was particularly cruel in Japan. In 1991, the Japan Foundation for AIDS Prevention, which was under the jurisdiction of the then health ministry, created and distributed a poster that read "Bon voyage, beware of AIDS," showing a suit-clad man raising a passport, which came under fire.

    A crowd is seen protesting against violent attacks on Asian Americans, including Japanese people, in New York on March 27, 2021. Prejudice against individuals with foreign roots has emerged not only in Japan, but in the United States too, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Mainichi/Toshiyuki Sumi)

    The expert immigration officer mentioned earlier said, "There have been reports of Japan's health care environment deteriorating due to the rise in COVID-19 cases. There may be the view that the hospitalization of foreigners is acting as one factor behind the shortage in hospital beds, but this in itself cannot be considered as (a result of) visits to the country with the purpose of receiving publicly funded treatment."

    Needless to say, the shortage in hospital beds is not the responsibility of foreigners or foreign countries, but rather stems from issues in Japan's health care policy and the national government's countermeasures.

    For such online posts, it may be necessary to employ common sense and exercise critical thinking before tapping the retweet button lightheartedly.

    (Japanese original by Riki Yoshii, Digital News Center)

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