Scientists around the world have been studying COVID-19 in a bid to figure out exactly what it is and how to defeat it.
Law enforcement agencies in Japan are also struggling to understand the new coronavirus, albeit for a slightly different reason. They need to define exactly what it is, and what it is not.
Could the virus be classified as a weapon of sorts and, if so, could threatening to use the virus in some way constitute a crime? If that would be a crime, what criminal statutes apply?
In March, police made two arrests related to the virus
On March 25, police in Aichi Prefecture arrested Hirokazu Nakayama, 49, over a disturbance he started in a pharmacy after he shouted: “I have coronavirus. I tested positive.” He then began coughing violently.
The retail staff called the police, who came and arrested Nakayama on charges of obstructing business.
Nakayama didn’t have the virus but was reportedly upset over being unable to buy any face masks, police said.
The next day, a 69-year old man named Norihiro Kojima on a flight to Matsuyama, allegedly told a flight attendant at Narita Airport shortly before takeoff that he had recently tested positive for the coronavirus.
The plane returned to the airport apron and the man was removed from the flight before being arrested on charges of obstructing business. At this stage, it’s still unclear whether or not he had tested positive.
It’s relatively clear then that using the virus in a threatening or joking manner will put you on the wrong side of the law.
A darker story emerged earlier in March involving a 57-year-old man in Aichi Prefecture. The man, who has not been identified, tested positive for the coronavirus on March 4 and was told by local authorities to self-quarantine.
Instead, the man told his parents he wanted to “spread the virus” and so visited a Filipino pub in the city of Gamagori, where he sang karaoke and put his arm around a female employee who was serving him.
After telling staff he had tested positive for the virus, he was asked to leave. The pub temporarily suspended business from March 4, and the pub’s manager subsequently filed a complaint with authorities on March 13, accusing the man of — you guessed it — obstructing business.
But before the man could be arrested, he was hospitalized on March 5 due to complications related to the virus before dying on March 18.
At least one female worker at the pub developed a fever on March 8 and tested positive for the virus a couple of days later.
Had the man lived, could he have been charged with assault? Nobody quite knows.
Tsunehiko Maeda, a former prosecutor, wrote in a column for Yahoo Japan on March 14, arguing that the man should be prosecuted on charges of obstructing business, which carries a prison sentence of up to three years.
However, prosecutors faced a much tougher time proving assault, which carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years.
Maeda cites precedent of a case in which a man was found guilty of assault after knowingly passing on a venereal disease. However, proving the man in Aichi was the one and only source of infection would be more difficult.
He says any criminal investigation would be beset with difficulties.
“If the police arrest the man and put him in detention, the poor ventilation and sanitation of such facilities may spread the disease to others,” he writes. “The interrogation rooms are small and questioning is usually done face to face. If the accused is wearing a mask, prosecutors can’t see his expressions or the pallor of his face, so reading (his thoughts) would be difficult.”
Detention centers aren’t the nicest places to be at the best of times, but it’s better to avoid such facilities altogether during a pandemic.