We shouldn’t rule out a milk crate challenge at this point.

We often like to make fun of the Japanese political old guard’s general incompetency with modern technology such as social media, but it’s important to point out when they do something pretty cool too.

Shigeru Omi is the current head of the Japan Community Health Care Organization, which is the government department that manages the social health care system. Prior to that he also served as a director for the WHO and tackled past pandemics such as polio and SARS. Omi has also been heavily involved in handling the COVID-19 pandemic in Japan since February, 2020. However, despite advances in vaccines and treatments, infection rates have been soaring to their highest levels ever.

Fearing that the causes for this are becoming more social than medical, the 74-year-old virologist is taking the fight against COVID-19 to an arena way outside his comfort zone: the Internet.

On 1 September, Omi announced his brand new Instagram account which he plans to use for an open dialog about COVID-19 prevention. Anyone who has a question or opinion to give to the health czar can do so via the hashtag #ねえねえ尾身 (“Hey hey Omi”).

Omi admits that he knows very little about social media, let alone “Instagram,” which he adorably chose to put in quotes in his announcement. This is why he has a team of younger people helping him manage the account and sort through the hundred of replies that it has already received.

▼ A video thanking his 200,000 followers amassed in one day: “I look forward to studying Instagram as hard as I can. Thank you!”

He explains that the purpose is not to tell people how to handle the current situation regarding the pandemic, but more to hear how people have been handling it and hopefully gain more insight to more forward with.

“Many people have cooperated for a long time in implementing basic infection control measures, but there may be some aspects that are causing divisions due to differences in thinking.
But I also think that a lot of different kinds of wisdom and ingenuity has arisen in overcoming these differences in thinking. For example, some things I’d like to know are:
How do you choose a type of mask?
How can you avoid being rude to customers who don’t wear a mask?
What is the best thing about your school or workplace’s COVID-19 prevention measures?
How did you adapt workplaces for those who don’t understand telework or are refusing to return to work after an infection?
How do you overcome worries that your opinion of COVID-19 is different from your family and friends?”
(Shigeru Omi)

There’s a certain disarming charm to the fact that Omi put himself out there as the face of this campaign. Most of the time a government agency would concoct a bunch of anonymous graphics and perhaps a mascot pigeon to solicit information — and would fail miserably.

But there’s something about Omi’s kindly-worded message that reeks of sincerity, and people have responded to it favorably. As of this writing there are nearly 1,500 replies which were a mixture of praise, opinions, and questions.

“Did I just tear up reading that? Omi is really great!”
“People in their 40s have not been able to get vaccinations through the government programs. This is the group of people who have the hardest time working and raising children and can’t afford to get sick. Please help them.”
“I used to buy masks only made in Japan at the beginning, but now this has gone on so long that I’ll just buy the cheaper ones made in China.”
“Since I have bad skin and asthma I wear a cloth or silk mask when walking, but I wear a non-woven one on the train even though it’s hard to breathe. I also only use restaurants with partitions, but there are surprisingly few.”
“Thank you for often speaking out against holding the Olympics. I appreciate you for that.”
“Good luck! I would like to hear more from younger doctors. These days its like their families are sending them off to war.”
“Dr. Omi, those who don’t follow the government’s recommendations will continue to spread the disease rapidly, and those who do follow it will lose touch with those they love and fall into depression. Either way it’s unreasonable and painful.”
“Will you do live streaming too?”
“Dr. Omi, thank you but I hope you are getting enough rest. Until now I’ve had to rely on politicians who live in a different dimension and have no idea about the reality normal people face.”

It’s been a pretty overwhelming response so far, considering it could have just as easily turned into 1,000 meme inquiries about the “BOFA“ virus.

Omi himself admitted that he wasn’t sure “if this crazy attempt will work,” but it appears to be, and hopefully some kind of better understanding can be achieved between the increasingly divergent opinions on how to handle prevention and treatment of COVID-19.

Source: Instagram/@omi.shigeru, Corona Expert Volunteer Association, Hachima Kiko
Top image: Instagram/@omi.shigeru
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