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from the May 2020 issue

What We Lost: COVID-19 Beyond the Numbers

Introduction: Megacity Lockdown

Coronavirus has thrived in megacities, determined to make it in the big smoke of the world’s densest urban hubs. It was in industrial Wuhan, now the most infamous megacity of them all, where tightly packed tower-block residents first showed signs of a new lung infection. New York and London, superstar cities, meccas for tourists, are now epicenters not of culture but mortality. The virus spread easily on their densely packed transport networks, their fashionable restaurants, on Broadway, in Soho. And it is the new megacities of the developing world, where millions live in urban poverty, packed into favelas and slums with little or no infrastructure, that COVID-19 appears most unforgiving. In the Manila slum of San Roque, locals must choose between observing the lockdown or working to feed their families. In São Paulo, where the infection is said to have been brought back by wealthy residents returning from European holidays, it is the poor periphery neighborhoods that now have the highest numbers of deaths. Responding to the unique challenges the COVID-19 pandemic poses for megacity locals, authors from the new anthology Megacity come together at Words Without Borders to describe life under lockdown in the world’s densest urban hubs. Below, Hideo Furukawa looks at the strange arithmetic of pandemic life.

—Kathleen McCaul Moura | Editor, Megacity

 

What We Lost: COVID-19 Beyond the Numbers

We’re living in an extremely mathematical world. Just take a look around. People everywhere can’t stop counting. Yesterday’s number of new cases, number of deaths. Today’s number of new cases, number of deaths . . . Tomorrow’s numbers . . . Numbers nationwide, worldwide . . . And we process those numbers mathematically. Day in, day out.

This is what it means to live in a pandemic.

What has the coronavirus taken from us? We need to answer this in a way that isn’t expressed through numbers. (After all, we’re not mathematicians. Most of us aren’t medical professionals, either, or economists or scientists who use numbers and formulas in our work. This is why we need another way.) So my answer is as follows:

The virus has taken our schedules from us.

This answer may rub some the wrong way. If you said to me, “Don’t you mean it’s human life that the virus has taken from us?” I wouldn’t know how to respond, not right away. But let’s look at this from another angle. If you, or someone important to you, fell victim to this disease, wouldn’t you tell yourself, “It wasn’t supposed to be like this”? Wouldn’t you think “I was supposed to have more time,” “We were supposed to have more time”?

We’re always trying to figure out how much time we’ve got left. Case in point: when we’re chronically ill, we’re faced with prognoses, all kinds of estimates. Sometimes the doctor even says something like “You’ve got six months.” No matter who we are, we’ve always got an eye on the time we have—and that’s what the coronavirus has taken from us.

Our schedules are blank.

So how can we resist this pandemic that has left us calendarless?

Read more work in response to the COVID-19 pandemic from writers around the world.

I’m a writer, a person who works with words, so I’d like to propose we redefine “schedule.” Right, what was a schedule anyway? Plans written down for the future. OK, now how do we define the future? A time opposed to the past. OK, so what’s the major difference between the future and the past?

Here’s my answer. You can write the past down on a timeline, but you can’t do the same with the future. Try and you’ll only end up creating a list of speculations and predictions. In other words, what you’ve written down becomes something new—a schedule. The timeline is no longer a timeline.

The future is that which absolutely resists the timeline.

Best be careful here. The last thing I want to do is fall into the trap of having to use the word “schedule” in the definition of the word “schedule.”

Which brings me to my second answer. The future has always been a blank page, resistant to the various plans we pencil in. If that’s true, the coronavirus hasn’t stolen our schedules because it never could. The future was empty to begin with.

I know, I haven’t managed to redefine “schedule” at all. This is nothing but sophistry. Needless to say, I’m aware how unsatisfying this is.

 

So what makes us fill in the blanks? Why do we make plans? Because we’re alive? Because we’re working? Because, if we’re children, we’re going to school? Or because, if we’re closer to the end of our lives, we’ve been put in homes and now spend our days waiting?

I think about myself. I’ve been living in Tokyo, Japan’s capital, for more than thirty years. Before I started college, I lived in Fukushima Prefecture, where I was born and raised. It seems like pretty much no one outside Japan had heard of Fukushima until 2011. That year, a magnitude-9.0 earthquake struck the eastern half of the Japanese archipelago. It was a “once-in-a-thousand-year disaster.” Right after the quake, a giant tsunami devastated eastern Japan’s Pacific Coast. Near the Fukushima coastline, there was a nuclear power plant, and when the tsunami hit, they lost control of the plant.

Radioactive material spread far and wide, throughout Fukushima and beyond.

I’m not too sure how much everyone outside Japan knows about what happened after that, but people risked their lives to work quickly toward decontamination. Today they’re working steadily toward decommissioning the plant as well. Apart from a restricted area, people are still living in Fukushima. I have family who have been there the whole time.

In September of 2013, it was decided that the 2020 Summer Olympics would be held in Tokyo. Japan’s bid—Tokyo’s bid—was a success. Then people with the government started calling the Games “the Post-Disaster Olympics.” They said they wanted to show the world how far Fukushima had come since 2011. I had my reservations. If they really wanted to spotlight Fukushima, why not hold the Olympics there? Why have them in Tokyo? But hey, politics never made much sense anyway, so forget all that. Besides, people in Fukushima were—to some extent—fine with the idea of the Post-Disaster Olympics.

Then a plan took shape. As part of the 2020 Games, softball matches and a few other events would take place in Fukushima; the Japanese extension of the torch relay would start there as well.

So as a writer from Fukushima, I developed a plan of my own. I’d write a report about the so-called Post-Disaster Olympics. I gave myself two rules. First, I’d leave Tokyo before the events got underway and stay in Fukushima until they were over. Second, because the Olympics is all about the athletes and how they use their bodies, I figured I’d travel around Fukushima on foot, interviewing people everywhere I went, asking them, “What do you think about the Post-Disaster Olympics? What do you make of Fukushima, Japan, and the world after 2011?” The plan was to take everything I learned and publish it as a series of articles in a Fukushima newspaper.

My plan involved serious preparation—and I was seriously preparing. Over the summer, I’d be doing a lot of walking, around fifteen miles a day, so I started training with a pro. That was late last year.

Then came the pandemic. In March of 2020, they postponed the Tokyo Olympics. A few days later, Fukushima decided there’d be no torch relay—“not this year.” This probably goes without saying, but my arrangement with the local paper was put on hold, too.

With things as they are now, what am I thinking?

 

I can see one scene as a metaphor for the other. In the wake of the nuclear disaster, those working toward remediation had to wear special gear to protect themselves, and everyone in Fukushima had to wear masks to avoid internal exposure. Protective clothing, masks, contaminated areas, Fukushima (in a sense) under lockdown. And now, 2020 . . . PPE, homemade masks, hotspots, major cities everywhere under lockdown.

We can’t see radiation. That’s why it scared us.

We can’t see the virus. That’s why it scares us.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been unable to shake the sense of déjà vu. That’s why I’ve made up my mind. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics may be a thing of the past, but I’m still going to go to Fukushima. I’m still going to walk. There’s just one problem. What if people there see me as a threat, someone who could bring the virus from the city? What if they see me as a carrier? Or will this strange moment be over by then? Where will Japan be this summer?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that new borders are now emerging, dividing the country. On either side of those lines are potential carriers and potential victims. And at any moment those roles could easily be reversed. That’s why writers need to find the words to erase those borders, to undo them. If I can’t make it to Fukushima this summer, then what am I going to do?

I don’t know. I’m not making any plans. And that’s how I plan to resist the pandemic. But I still have a vision of the world without the virus. One scene as the other . . . We can always be connected with the past. Reading can be a communion with the dead, with their words. We can learn from them. When we read and when we write, we’re constantly traveling beyond time’s borders.


"Ubawareta mono, koeru beki kyōkai." © Hideo Furukawa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by David Boyd. All rights reserved.

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