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COVID-19 patients at home turn to social media for help, comfort amid lack of gov't aid

Oxygen concentrators are seen lined up for inspection before being shipped, in Sayama, Saitama Prefecture, on Aug. 23, 2021. (Mainichi/Emi Naito)

TOKYO -- Many of the surging number of COVID-19 patients stuck convalescing at home as infections continue to spike in Japan are turning to social media to process their anxiety and loneliness, apparently because public health centers and other official bodies can't provide the necessary health support.

    While an expert acknowledged that the coping strategy has certain advantages, they said it is important to strengthen the system of public health centers and medical institutions.

    A 28-year-old woman from Tokyo's Nakano Ward, who works at an eatery, posted on Twitter in mid-August: "I've compiled a list of things I wish I had when I got infected with the coronavirus." She named bottled water, porridge and canned fruit as examples of "instant food you should regularly stock up on."

    In a telephone interview with the Mainichi Shimbun, the woman said she found out she had the virus at the end of July, and recuperated at home. Though her symptoms were mild, she had a fever close to 40 degrees Celsius at one point. Driven by anxiety, the woman searched online and found other patients writing about their own experiences recovering at home.

    Online posts sketched a picture of patients feeling helpless and suffering from their symptoms, with no contact from their local health centers. A hashtag that roughly translates to, "Everyone fighting against the coronavirus, let's talk," was attached to these posts so it was easy for people in the same situation to find them. The woman felt encouraged by the messages, and posted herself in hopes of helping someone.

    The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare requires local governments to contact patients at home at least once a day to monitor their health. However, in the case of the woman, the health center only contacted her once in a span of about 10 days. Food did not arrive from the local government until a week after she began her home recovery. She survived on instant food her parents sent her, but felt it was hard not to go out at all without the help of friends and family.

    In a separate case, a 35-year-old woman in Tokyo's Adachi Ward who contracted the virus wrote on Twitter in mid-August: "I've been carrying my son who isn't yet 1 for such a long time, and I can't ask for help from my husband because he's sick in bed. Someone, help me."

    The woman lives in a 1LDK apartment. And though she did her best not to give the virus to her 34-year-old husband and 4-month-old, staying in her room and separating the laundry and trash, her husband was confirmed infected a week later. The woman took the antipyretic prescribed to her at the clinic, but her fever topped 39 C, and she continued to cough. Feeling desperate, she called her local health center, but couldn't reach them. "I felt abandoned," she said.

    Her Twitter post drew a message of encouragement from a person who said they had also contracted the virus along with their spouse while having to look after an infant. The woman told the Mainichi, "I became mentally stable after knowing that I wasn't the only one having a rough time. It gave me hope."

    Koji Wada, professor of public health at the International University of Health and Welfare, acknowledged the effect that social media has, saying, "It gives users a positive feeling by sharing experiences." On the other hand, he expressed his concern that "the more information there is, the more likely it is that stories of unknown authenticity will get mix in."

    He added, "It is essentially the role of public health centers and medical institutions to provide advice to infected patients. The skill of local governments is being questioned, in terms of whether they can establish a support system for patients staying at home."

    (Japanese original by Shintaro Iguchi and Shotaro Kinoshita, Tokyo City News Department)

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