COVID-19 Disproportionately Affecting Women and Children in Japan

COVID-19 Disproportionately Affecting Women and Children in Japan

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Woman struggling
Pangaea / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
A new study from Japan adds more evidence that the pandemic is having a lopsided impact on women and children.

(Content Warning: Discussions of suicide and domestic violence)

A study conducted by a team of researchers from the Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology released on the 15th found that from July to October — during the “second wave” of coronavirus infections — suicide rates increased 16%. Additionally, the study found that suicide rates also fell 14% during the “first wave.”

Published to the British scientific journal Nature, the study analyzed the effects of the coronavirus from February of last year, when the first wave began, to October of the same year. Focused on the social effects of COVID-19, the study’s primary reasoning was that “to formulate effective policy responses, policymakers, healthcare professionals and researchers need a credible assessment of suicide prevalence during the pandemic.”

Increase in suicide following an initial decline during the COVID-19 pandemic in Japan

There is increasing concern that the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic could harm psychological health and exacerbate suicide risk. Here, based on month-level records of suicides covering the entire Japanese population in 1,848 administrative units, we assessed whether suicide mortality changed during the pandemic.

The results were split into two main time periods: the “first wave” of the pandemic, from February to June 2020, and the “second wave” from July to October. Data were analyzed through many lenses, including gender, age, job status, and geography. The study also takes into account suicide rate trends from previous years.

The First Wave

One of the key findings of the study was that the overall suicide rate declined 14% during the “first wave” of the pandemic, compared with the same time period of previous years. All demographics, particularly children, saw this decline.

The results from the second wave were bleaker. From July to October, suicide rates increased by 16% and rose by 38% in October alone. Click To Tweet

The findings were consistent with other studies being done in countries such as Norway and the UK, as well as previous studies conducted after natural disasters. This initial decline in suicide rates, followed by a delayed increase, is also known as the “pulling-together effect.” This theory states that people undergoing shared hardship will come together to support one another.

In addition to this, the decline could also be linked to the financial aid that was provided for citizens. Individuals were eligible to receive a one-time cash benefit of ¥100,000 (approx. US$940). Lending additional credence to this theory, existing studies have established that financial insecurity is one of the major risk factors for suicide. According to the study, about 80% of subsidies were distributed before June, the last month before suicide rates began increasing.

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For children, suicide rates also saw a significant drop during the nationwide school closures that happened between March and April. This may be evidence that school closures could have reduced stress from bullying and social interactions.

Picture: Nature Human Behavior

The Second Wave

The results from the second wave were bleaker. From July to October, suicide rates increased by 16% and rose by 38% in October alone. It is important to note that the increase in suicide rate disproportionately affected women and children, and was most pronounced in October when the suicide rate for women increased by 82%. Suicides among housewives also increased during all pandemic periods, and particularly from July to October, increased 132%.

The uneven distribution becomes clear when compared to the increase in suicides among males. While historically, men have a rate that is 2.3 times higher than that of women, the increase in the suicide rate for women was 5 times greater than their male counterparts.

While causes still need to be fully identified, the results support other studies that suggest the pandemic has had a disproportionate effect on female-dominated industries and consequently female employment. This is also consistent with the fact that COVID-19 has sparked an increase in domestic violence cases around the world, and Japan, in particular, has seen a marked increase in domestic violence calls in 2020.

Picture: Nature Human Behavior

The report highlights that, for children, the second wave’s 49% spike coincided with the reopening of schools. As with the decrease during the first wave, the resulting increase after reopening the school system may have been caused by the stress of returning to school, as well as amplifying any underlying psychological depression that the students may have had.

What We Can Do

Now more than ever, people need support during the pandemic – financial safety nets, strong social bonds, and mental wellness programs. Click To Tweet

Coronavirus infections, particularly in large metropolitan areas such as Tokyo and Osaka, are still at record highs. The vaccines may take some time to become readily available. But this study shows that there are still a few things that can be done to not only mitigate the risk of infection but also reduce financial and emotional strain.

Policies like government subsidies and economic support, as well as the closing down of schools, have decreased suicide rates for children, women, and adolescents, all of whom were disproportionately affected. The government needs to consider such policies, regardless of their perceived “economic viability” or the possibility of “killing the economy,” in order to prevent further harm. While it may be tempting to focus only on total deaths caused by COVID-19 (of which there were 1,765 as of October), suicides by comparison increased by an additional 970 from July to October.

Now more than ever, people need support – financial safety nets, strong social bonds, and mental wellness programs. It is our job as citizens to push the government to fulfill these needs, and be there for our family and friends at their most vulnerable.

If you or a loved one is in need of help, there are resources available. If you live in Japan, you can call 119 in the case of emergencies. Free counseling is also available at the TELL Lifeline: 03-5774-0992. You can also visit telljp.com for more information.

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Andrew Kiya

Andrew Kiya is a Mixed Japanese Writer, Streamer, and Activist. Born and raised in both Japan and the United States, he focuses primarily on the intersection of mixed race experiences, video games, and progressive politics.

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