Yoshihiko Takeuchi, who ran a small restaurant on the island of Okinawa, told only a few friends he had the coronavirus. When he didn’t answer phone calls from public health workers for three days, police went to his home and found him dead in his bed.

In many countries, those with the virus stay home to isolate and recover, but critics say that in Japan, a country with one of the most affordable and accessible health care systems, people have been denied hospital care, and the policy amounted to “jitaku hochi,” or “abandonment at home.”

Japan has seen caseloads fall dramatically in the past two months and the government has drawn up a road map to improve its pandemic response. A plan adopted Nov. 12 aims to have beds for up to 37,000 patients nationwide by the end of November, up from 28,000.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida also promised to have health care workers routinely visit Covid-19 patients with mild symptoms at home.

Speaking up takes courage in a conformist society like Japan, and class action lawsuits are rare. But Kaori Takada, Takeuchi’s sister, and others in her group believe their loved ones were denied the medical care they deserved.

In New York, for instance, hospitals were quickly converted, adding thousands of extra beds and ICUs for virus patients. A Navy medical ship and other facilities were turned into makeshift hospitals. At the outbreak’s peak in April 2020, there were more than 1,600 new hospitalizations a day citywide.

About 18,000 Japanese have died of Covid-19-related deaths in a population of 126 million. No one knows exactly how many died at home, though the National Police Agency, which tracks deaths, said 951 people have died at home since March 2020, with 250 of them in August 2021 alone.

In October, JCHO said it had prepared 972 beds nationwide for virus patients, or fewer than 7% of its more than 14,000 overall beds, though in August it temporarily made room for about 1,800 patients.

JCHO declined to comment on Kishida’s call for providing thousands more beds.

The problems are deeply rooted in a decades-old system, and Yamamoto worries that even if Japan manages to ride out this pandemic, it will be unprepared for the next one.


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