07/15/2021, 12.38
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Fr Lembo: How COVID-19 overwhelmed Japan

by Alessandra De Poli

Focused on preparing the Olympics, the Japanese government came to realise the gravity of the situation too late. The pandemic has exacerbated existing problems and brought new ones to the fore. According to Fr Andrea Lembo, the Japanese have also learnt that “alone humans die, while solidarity gives life.”

Tokyo (AsiaNews) – In many countries, the COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated pre-existing tensions or acted as a catalyst for processes already underway. In Japan, host of the 2020 Olympics, the coronavirus has upset all plans.

“The Japanese government understood the gravity of the situation too late; people hoped until the end that the Games would go ahead under normal circumstances,” said Fr Andrea Lembo, a Tokyo-based PIME missionary from Italy, speaking to AsiaNews.

Less than 10 days from start of the competition, the Tokyo prefecture is back to a state of emergency. The Olympics will be held behind closed doors, to the disappointment and anguish of the residents.

With the arrival of the international delegations, the city will be under tight security. “The typical Japanese rigidity that wasn't there before was brought out. But too late,” Fr Lembo noted.

There is also the economic and image damage. “In the past year, businesses in the tourism sector have made great efforts. Tokyo also saw an architectural transformation. The goal was to express the maximum of Japanese culture and show it to tourists and the whole world.”

The Olympics were meant to show off Japanese successes since 1964, when the country hosted the Games for the first time.

The pandemic turned preparation into a nightmare. Then new problems were added. For example, thousands of workers from Southeast Asia – mostly Vietnamese and Filipinos – are now unemployed and stranded in the country.

“The government introduced a new type of contract to hire foreign workers, but in reality, it was a ploy to replenish the pension funds, given the aging population,” Fr Lembo explained.

“These workers pay contributions, but will never be entitled to a pension, because to have it you must have worked at least 10 years in Japan. They will never meet such a condition because their visa lasts a maximum of three years.

“After they were hired, the economic situation got worse and now thousands are stuck here. It is a great social problem.”

The coronavirus has exacerbated existing problems. The loneliness and isolation of the population have increased. “Human relationships have become even more complicated; there are many hikikomori,[*] and the suicide rate has also increased,” Fr Lembo noted.

On the other hand, various expressions of solidarity have arisen from this experience, on the part of the Catholic Church and other religious groups. “It is as if the Japanese understood that alone humans die, while solidarity gives life,” added the missionary.

“In my parish food distribution takes place for families who are truly impoverished. With the local administration we created a canteen for children twice a month, and it immediately became a show of solidarity contest.”

Two years ago, Fr Lembo set up a special fund to pay for such initiatives, which has remained intact thanks to continuous offers. “We are given so much that we can also redistribute it to other associations.”

[*] Socially withdrawn people.

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