Photo/Illutration Letters of support are posted on a board of the office where the employee with COVID-19 worked in Iwate Prefecture and its parent company in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture. The texts are modified for privacy reasons. (Shoko Mifune)

MORIOKA, Iwate Prefecture--Falling victim to COVID-19 infection is bad enough, but when the patient comes under attack on social media due to stigma attached to the disease, the experience can leave the individual very disheartened and dispirited.

With so many aspects of the new coronavirus pandemic still unclear, the last thing a sick person needs is to face a barrage of bashing, as has happened so often in the past.

So when a gas company based in Iwate Prefecture in the Tohoku region learned that one of its employees tested positive in late July, it braced for a sharp backlash and lots of name-calling, which it feared would damage its reputation in local communities.

It was the first confirmed case in Iwate, the only prefecture of 47 that until then had not recorded a single infection.

The employee’s infection was confirmed on the evening of July 29. The company immediately convened a meeting of top officials to discuss how to release the news.

As a utility, it put safeguard measures in place early on and since February, when cases began emerging around the nation, had prepared a response to any infection within the company.

Now that it finally must grapple with the problem, the focus of company officials was to find a way to protect the privacy of the employee while easing anxiety in local communities.

Late that night, the company published a notice on its website of the employee’s infection and how his case was confirmed. It also provided assurances that no customers were exposed.

Company officials were determined to protect the employee in the event he became targeted for personal attacks.

Phones were ringing off the hook with nasty messages as soon as broadcasters and newspapers identified the company on the morning of July 31.

“Did you fire the employee?” one caller asked. “Your employee training may be lousy,” said another.

Some kept calling repeatedly. Others stayed on the line for more than 30 minutes to gripe about the case.

But the company staff took it all in their stride and listened patiently to what the callers had to say. A few of them became anxious when the phones rang.

The company swung into action to reassure its customers.

It mailed literature to thousands of households in the prefecture on Aug. 1, explaining that the infected employee had not been in contact with any customers since he developed symptoms and that other employees who were in close contact with him all tested negative.

Two days later, a company sales office got an unusual delivery: arranged red flowers with a card, but with no name on it.

The card read: “I believe that flowers should be what is delivered to your office, not slanderous words.”

Around the same time, the company began receiving emails and hand-written letters asking after the employee’s health and wishing him well. Phone calls to the company by customers who had read the literature now took on a cheery tone.

One individual wrote to the sick employee expressing deep concern, asking, “Are you able to sleep OK? I am really worried about you.”

Another said: “I sincerely hope that your company will return to normal operations soon” by taking no notice of the bullying.

Still another said, “I am proud of your company taking care of our home.”

Emails of encouragement even came in from the Kanto and Kansai regions. Some people sent watermelons, homemade deep-fried balls of fish paste or sweets with messages like, “You must be tired.”

A senior official said the kind gestures from local residents suggest deep appreciation for the dedication of employees when they struggled to deliver gas and kerosene after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster.

The letters are posted on a board at the company so employees can read them.

Nasty phone calls and emails totaled about 100, most of them coming within two days of the company announcing the infection, the company said.

Another 100, including presents, were supportive of the company.

The senior official believes the tide of public sentiment shifted after Iwate Governor Takuya Tasso took a strong stance against bullying the patient on social media.

“We need to steel ourselves to take a stern response (to bashing),” the governor said at a news conference on July 31, suggesting the prefectural government will consider keeping track of disparaging postings.

The official also noted the change in public reaction after media outlets reported that the employee had become a public punching bag.

The employee in question is steadily recovering his health. Ten of his colleagues who were identified as having been in close contact with him returned to work after self-isolating for 14 days.

The senior official expressed gratitude to the senders of the positive messages for lifting their spirits.

“Although defamation of patients tends to draw public attention, warm reactions from local communities and others have helped the employee with the disease and other employees weather this difficult time,” he said. “I hope our experiences can be of some help in how to deal with the infection.”