As Herouth has reported on Twitter, the NSK will have a press conference on April 9 to provide more information about a possible outbreak of the novel corona virus within the sumo world.
The timing of this is quite the coincidence as your correspondent has just returned home from a two week hospitalization due to COVID-19, so I would like to add a bit of perspective about what they may be going through, some best and worse case scenarios for impact to the sumo world, as well as to highlight some issues and how it may impact their care.
I enjoyed the last week of the Osaka basho isolated upstairs in bed (to protect my family who have thankfully shown no signs of infection) with a fever, head ache, cough, and some of the other more unpleasant symptoms. But just after senshuraku an intense, bloody coughing fit left me no choice but to head to the ER. From there, my experience roughly matches what I’ve been reading about British Prime Minister Boris Johnson: supplemental oxygen in the ICU but thankfully no need for one of those rare ventilators.
Obviously, not all COVID-19 infections require hospitalization and quite adequate care can be provided at home. In the sumo world, that means the stable. The facilities of a stable may not allow for complete isolation of even one wrestler, much less multiple affected rikishi. If not successfully isolated, I fear there will be a higher risk that the infection will spread throughout the stable over the next few weeks. However, if the wrestlers/staff are successfully isolated, it may be possible to contain the outbreak.
We’ve also been a bit critical of the healthcare provided to rikishi, mostly regarding the alarming speed with which many wrestlers return to action and the shocking lack of care provided to those who suffer major injuries on the dohyo. However, in the case of the corona virus, the NSK handled the Osaka tournament well and acted swiftly to cancel jungyo events and more recently to put an end to degeiko. Will they be able to manage this illness? If the May tournament happens, will they provide relief in rank to any rikishi who must go kyujo?
What I hope to learn from tomorrow’s press conference is, aside from the number of rikishi/staff affected, how does the stable or the Kyokai propose to isolate those who are infected? Will they try to isolate them at the heya, or perhaps the Kokugikan clinic, or more likely at a hospital (regardless of the seriousness of the infection). If a mild infection is treated at a hospital, I do think that would be a waste of resources because the demands on caregiver time and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) are considerable. Nurses come in to check vital signs and provide food, etc, and must dispose of the top layer after each visit to each patient. If a mild case could be successfully isolated at the heya it would reduce the strain on local hospitals which may soon need to deal with rising infection rates among the general public, especially as sumo wrestlers would likely come in with special needs and possible underlying health problems.
Can Tokyo Prevent A Crisis?
Though the Abe government declared a State of Emergency, the calls for people to stay home may be less effective without legal enforcement behind it, especially when dealing with public transit. One of the many tragedies in the case of New York City is the number of infections and deaths among public transportation workers. 41 employees of the Metropolitan Transit Authority have died with another 1500 sickened. The MTA encompasses not only their bus and subway networks but the Long Island Railroad and Metro North Commuter systems. There is a fear that the Tokyo metropolis will see its own New York City-level crisis soon. In response, the authorities are stepping up enforcement of Social Distancing in public transit, and Japan may find it will need to actually enforce some of these voluntary restrictions.
So, if Tokyo is unable to contain its infection rate, the number of serious COVID-19 cases could rise dramatically while the infection simultaneously works its way through the sumo world. It’s this worst case scenario that I fear will lead to the cancellation of multiple basho. The Kyokai handled the Osaka tournament so well, allowing the show to go on but preventing infections. At this point, though, it will not just come down to what the NSK does but what the Japanese and Tokyo governments do to combat the crisis.
Social Distancing vs Social Isolation
Another common complaint in the sumo fan world recently has been the social media ban and I really hope they relax this ban for impacted wrestlers. Isolation is a difficult issue for any potential COVID-19 patient. While much of the world is practicing Social Distancing, the care of COVID patients really requires isolation to prevent this nasty virus from spreading throughout the heya.
Mentally, though, such solitary confinement is quite lonely. I must say, I quickly grew tired of video games, reading repetitive, depressing news, playing the guitar, standing idly by the window, etc. Interacting with readers, friends and family on social media was a huge morale boost. I cannot emphasize enough how connected and *normal* this simple interaction made me feel. I hope rikishi are allowed the same connection which goes beyond the usually brief interaction of friends and family members. While we may chat with our best friend on the phone for a few minutes each day, it’s much easier to get lost for hours on Social Media.
Obviously, update to come after the NSK press conference.