Before dawn on the 5th of February, Captain Gennaro Arma sipped espresso in his tidy office, wondering how bad the news would be. He wore a crisp black uniform with shiny brass buttons and lifted the tiny cup with fingers swathed in cheap latex gloves. The passengers on the Diamond Princess were mostly asleep, and Arma, not long awake himself, brooded over the possibilities. He hoped for a Return to Normal: He would thunder up the engines and glide the Diamond from its anchored stillness out in Tokyo Bay into the port of Yokohama. Passengers would trudge down the gangway, Samsonites rumbling, a little befuddled by their brush with calamity but on their way. Then there was That Other Option, less clear and more ominous. Hearing a knock—there they are—Arma strapped on a surgeon's mask, opened the door, and greeted two Japanese health officers who strode in, also wearing gloves and masks, ready to deliver the verdict.
Two weeks earlier, on January 20, Arma had sailed the Diamond southwest from Yokohama for a 14-day cruise to China, Vietnam, and Taiwan, then back to Japan. Three days into the voyage, news reports arrived that China had shut down all travel from and within Wuhan, an inland city of 11 million, in an attempt to squelch a new coronavirus. Then, in the predawn hours of February 2, Princess Cruises' vice president of maritime operations had awoken Arma with preliminary information that a passenger in his eighties who had left the ship in Hong Kong eight days earlier had since tested positive for the same virus. The captain was told to speed back early from Okinawa to Tokyo Bay, so that passengers and crew could be screened. Ferrying out to meet the ship late on February 3, health workers boarded and spent that night and the next day walking cabin to cabin, asking if people were feverish or coughing, taking temperatures and swabbing throats.
Now the health officers were back with the first set of test results: The coronavirus hadn't disembarked with the elderly man in Hong Kong. Ten of the 31 results at that point were also positive. Nine passengers. One food worker.
While they spoke, the captain's thoughts went to the 2,666 passengers and 1,045 crew members. Those 10 people probably had roommates. How far had it spread?
Arma had spent more than 25 years at sea. Just five months earlier, in these same waters, he had faced his most arduous trial yet, white-knuckling the Diamond's helm against Typhoon Faxai. He had held the bow straight into 100-mph winds, lest they catch the cruise liner's massive flank and fling it around like a toy boat in a Jacuzzi. He accepted the sea's hierarchy—“You can't beat Mother Nature, but you can come to a compromise”—so all night he negotiated, gunning the engines and thrusters to keep the 115,875-ton behemoth in place, the nautical version of running on a treadmill. You didn't hear about a Princess cruise ship slamming into a cargo vessel or capsizing last September, because he succeeded.
“We got through Faxai. We'll get through this,” a staff captain told Arma upon hearing of the virus aboard the ship. Arma preferred Faxai. This new coronavirus wasn't something he knew how to navigate.
The legal authority for the ship's safety had shifted to the Japanese government. Those officials, in turn, had pondered a real-life version of the trolley problem: The ship was carrying 3,711 people, any one of whom could be harboring a potentially fatal disease to which no one had immunity. No option was good. A ham-handed disembarkation risked unleashing the virus within Japan, which at that point had only 20 known cases and was hosting the Summer Olympics in just five months' time. Send passengers to their home countries without ensuring they were healthy and Japan would be blamed for spreading the contagion. Yet the last choice—a quarantine, albeit in a glamorous prison—presented a danger, even an inevitability, of sickening many on board. And given that 60 percent of the cruisegoers were 60 years or older, with weaker immune systems, an infection could mean death.
That morning, the Japanese health officials delivered the government's decision. For all his nautical prowess and romantic seafarer bearing, Arma is also a polished company man. Accepting his role as a high-ranking messenger, he fired up the shipwide intercom at 8:12 that morning and announced in steady Italian-accented English:
The Ministry of Health has notified us that 10 people have tested positive for coronavirus …
The local public health official has requested all guests stay in their stateroom … It has been confirmed that the ship will remain under quarantine in Yokohama.
The length of quarantine will be at least 14 days …
No one knew at that point how much damage the virus had already caused. For days, as passengers played bingo and drank mai tais in the Skywalker Lounge, it had invisibly hopscotched from one person to another. Now the ship would become the first big outbreak outside the Chinese epicenter and a mutating symbol: at first, a Fyre Festival-like joke, its buffed banisters, restaurants, casinos, and dance floors converted into beguiling on-ramps for infection. Over time, though, the luxury ship proved to be a microcosm of the world's battle with the novel coronavirus: the laggard response, the upstairs-downstairs inequality, the limitations of privilege against a pandemic, and how global interconnection allowed the virus to take over. By the time its crisis concluded, the Diamond would be less punch line than premonition.
Arnold Hopland reached for his cabin phone after hearing Arma's announcement. Hopland had people to call, but he hadn't sprung for the personal Verizon international plan, because, as he puts it, “I'm cheap.” That's also the reason he and his wife, Jeanie, had opted for a cabin on Deck 5 on a ship that rose to 18. Hopland could have chosen a stateroom with a balcony and a soaring view; he'd done well for himself as a doctor and semiretired founder of three family practice clinics near Johnson City, Tennessee. But, he concluded, his cheap streak was for the best. “It was an absurd plan” to coop contagious humans on a ship, but at least he and Jeanie were sealed in their room, squeezing by each other between the flatscreen TV and two pushed-together twin beds. People in the more expensive quarters above were chatting on their balconies over thin dividers—as if that were safe to do.
The quarantine came as a shock to Hopland. He hadn't heard Arma's shipwide dispatch on the night of February 3, announcing that a passenger who had left the ship had tested positive for the coronavirus six days after disembarking. He'd caught something about a health inspection, which would delay the cruise's end, but dismissed it as a kitchen issue. Nothing on the ship tipped him off to the gravity of the impending emergency.
While Princess executives on two continents exchanged texts and calls about the infected passenger and flew to Tokyo to set up an incident command, on board the ship, a normal day's schedule with a Zumba class and Dance the Night Away party was handed out. Passengers only noticed small tweaks: A staffer seemed to be more serious about enforcing use of a hand-washing station at the buffet. The MC of a trivia match in the Explorers Lounge told players to pocket their pencils instead of handing them back. The crew sprayed disinfectant on surfaces and set out more hand sanitizer, but passengers said they didn't see out-of-the-ordinary efforts. On February 4, Arnold and Jeanie killed time playing Scrabble outside, never thinking trouble was coming for them while passengers were told over the PA to return to their cabins for screenings in shifts. Now they were on a floating petri dish.
Arma had docked the Diamond by the pier of Yokohama for the quarantine. Several times a day, the captain's luxuriant voice would fill the Hoplands' cabin to announce, like a bingo match of doom, the growing number of people who had tested positive for the new coronavirus: 10 infections the first day. Another 10 the next. Forty-one more the day after that. Then 66 three days later. During organized fresh air breaks, Hopland got a view of a brigade of ambulances parked in rows on the vast plain of the pier, as if on the side of a battlefield, ready to transfer those who tested positive to isolation rooms ashore. Hopland watched one ambulance take 45 minutes to load one person, concluding, “We're going to be here until June.”
Up on Deck 10, a 57-year-old lawyer from Sacramento named Matt Smith had a balcony seat for the dockside action. He logged into his mostly dormant Twitter account—some 13 followers and a bio (“I'm too old for this s***”)—and started posting photos: A crane lifting fresh linen on board. A phalanx of reporters lined up with cameras on tripods. One he captioned, “Frustrating to see a group of hazmat astronauts huddled around an ambulance … and have no way of finding out what's going on.” Perusing the news online, Smith was amused to spot a picture of his wife, Katherine Codekas, standing forlornly on their balcony in her robe.
The World Health Organization wouldn't release a preliminary cruise ship protocol for handling the Covid-19 outbreak until two and a half weeks after the Diamond's quarantine started; when it did, it recommended isolating people with suspected cases and then, as quickly as possible, getting them to an onshore facility for testing. In the meanwhile, the Japanese government had invoked a cordon sanitaire, a blunt-force disease control method dating to the 1500s in which authorities force everyone—infected, healthy, immune—to stay inside an area of suspected outbreak. China had used this method to lock down the city of Wuhan.
Precise protocols for contagions have been developed over time to care for the sick and prevent health care workers from contracting disease. Even in trying settings, like the plastic tents used during the Ebola outbreak, patients can be held in a “red zone,” where medical personnel are clad in protective gear, which they shed in a “yellow zone,” before stepping into the “green zone” free of contagion. On the Diamond, infection control experts trained medical staff on using protective gear, which they shed in a designated area apart from other working areas, the health ministry said; still, one Japanese expert boarding late in the quarantine publicly denounced what he viewed as “completely chaotic” and lax controls.
“In theory, a quarantine could be done” on a ship, says Arthur Reingold, a professor of epidemiology at UC Berkeley. “But in practice, I suspect it would be extraordinarily difficult.” Without universal testing for sorting the infected from the healthy, he says, each person would need to be isolated in their own cabin—a virtual impossibility on a ship—and do an “exceptionally good job of preventing exposure to the crew, or the crew to each other.”
Early on, the Japanese authorities suggested the US evacuate American cruisegoers, who made up the second largest passenger contingent after Japanese, according to state broadcaster NHK. But at the time, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention decided that keeping people inside their cabins was the “best approach” to limit spreading infection.
On board the Diamond, the crew, untested for the virus, delivered food, towels, and Amazon orders and picked up dirty dishes while walking through various floors of the ship, where untested passengers shared rooms with their travel partners. Japanese authorities handed out digital thermometers to everyone during the third day of the quarantine. Captain Arma urged passengers to take their own temperatures throughout the day; if it registered over 99.5 degrees Fahrenheit, they were to call the onboard fever center, and only then would they be tested for the new coronavirus. Such a system allowed asymptomatic virus carriers—which turned out to be about half of the Diamond's cases—to unwittingly spread disease.
Princess Cruises, owned by the mega cruise company Carnival Corporation, hired crisis communications consultants to massage the optics of its ship paralyzed by a virus outbreak. The company wasn't happy with the onboard quarantine, says Ryan Mikolasik, one of the crisis consultants. “It quickly became obvious that this situation was not tenable,” he says. At a meeting with about 15 Japanese officials at Carnival's Tokyo office, company representatives discussed isolating the passengers onshore. Officials told them there weren't 3,700 hospital rooms available. Hotels? Well, they would need 10. The Olympic Village? Not finished yet. (The government says it would have been preferable to isolate people on land, but that the difficulty finding accommodations for Japanese evacuees from Wuhan contributed to the decision to quarantine on the ship.)
Several times a day, Captain Arma became the voice of incoming decisions, piping through the PA system with lengthy updates: Prescription refills would be delivered as soon as possible. Passengers would now receive supplies to clean their own cabins, as the housekeepers could no longer enter. He added assurances—“A diamond is just a rock that did well under pressure”—and explained how to call the ship's help line, on which he sometimes spoke to passengers himself.
Hopland was not placated. Seventy-five but “physiologically in my fifties,” he says, with a full head of white hair, Hopland wasn't worried for his own health. But pandemic preparedness had been his pet issue for decades. As a clinician, he proselytized for flu shots, advertised by a gigantic blow-up pink elephant named Fluzie in his clinics' parking lots. He would recount tales of the 1918 Spanish flu to Jeanie and fret that the country was woefully underprepared for the next outbreak. He'd even sent the Obama administration a letter urging it to prepare and offering his services as surgeon general. (He got a polite brush-off.)
When, on February 8, the CDC advised the US passengers aboard the Diamond to stay in their cabins, Hopland went into shin-kicking mode. He wanted US residents taken off the ship and tested. He was infuriated by the idea that untested, asymptomatic cruise passengers might board commercial planes at the end of this cockamamie quarantine, potential Typhoid Marys in the skies. He was convinced he had a smarter plan, and the connections to pull it off.
Down on Deck 4, the first with windows, Alex sat in the crew cafeteria watching the news on TV. Onscreen he saw images of the ship he was inside. As soon as he heard about the outbreak of the new coronavirus on the Diamond, Alex started Googling. He read about social distancing and was eating apart from other workers who were sitting side by side at long tables. At one point he stood up to look out a porthole and saw boats gliding by, news cameras pointed his way. A security officer demanded that crew members shut the windows, Alex says, cutting off the view.
Alex isn't his real name, but unlike the passengers freely tweeting and appearing on TV, he was wary about discussing his experiences on the ship. The crew was barred from speaking to the media without approval, and although he said he was not telling me “anything wrong … it's the truth,” he asked to be identified only as “Asian hotel staff,” for fear of being blacklisted for future jobs. On cruises, he says, the crew work “like machines” on temporary contracts. But it was a good job for a guy who had grown up, he told me, in a slum that “sounds ugly and is ugly.” The gig came with free room and board and about $900 a month, enough for him to help family members and save up so that, one day, he and his wife could move into their own place.
On board, Alex noticed that, among the crew, the navigation team tended to come from Western countries. Their cabins were on higher decks. Some officers were allowed to eat in the passenger dining rooms and run on treadmills in the passenger gym. Housekeeping and food workers largely came from the Philippines, India, and Indonesia and most slept below the waterline in cramped cabins with roommates.
Throughout the quarantine, workers were required to cook and deliver food and linens to cabin-bound passengers, increasing their own chances of exposure. “So many people said that's wrong,” Alex says. As workers commiserated, the shared language of English splintered into Tagalog, Hindi, and Indonesian. Alex and his immediate coworkers contemplated a work stoppage, but they feared that taking action would mean they'd never be hired again. The Princess contract states that in emergencies workers must show “immediate unquestioning obedience of orders; There can be no exception to this rule.” In this case, Princess was also obeying the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare, which had authority to say when everyone got to leave. “So we're not going to go against them,” Alex says.
The health ministry distributed face masks and latex gloves to the crew. Letters signed “Yours in Health” from Princess' chief medical officer, Grant Tarling, at the corporate headquarters in Santa Clarita, California, were delivered to the crew's cabins. One read: “What is happening is unprecedented, but it is allowing health experts to learn about the virus and how it spreads. This will help all of you onboard, as well as people around world.”
In short: guinea pigs. Because not everyone had been tested, Alex had no idea if his coworkers—or his sneezing roommate in their 6- by 9-foot cabin, or the other crew with whom they shared a bathroom—carried the virus. “TV news, social media, WhatsApp, all coronavirus! We were getting scared, scared, scared,” he says. “Like, why are they trapping us in the ship?” More postings went up in crew quarters and were delivered to cabins: numbers for a counseling line, reminders to wash their hands frequently, recommendations for self-care apps. But crew members were still working next to each other, albeit in masks and latex gloves, chopping onions, stuffing dirty sheets into washers, scrubbing the passengers' grubby plates until the ship changed to disposable ones. A CDC study would later reveal that 15 of 20 workers who tested positive in the first week worked in food preparation, and 16 of them lived on the same deck. A Filipina cook who lived on that deck feared she would die. “Who would take care of my kids?”
Like the passengers, crew members were given thermometers and told to self-report fevers. Those with symptoms awaiting test results, or who had roommates who'd tested positive and been whisked away, were told to stay in their cabins and self-isolate. “That was pathetic,” Alex says. Those people still had cabin- and bathroom-mates.
Then, on February 11, Japanese health workers rolled out a more comprehensive testing plan. First the passengers would be tested, starting with the oldest and working down. After all the passengers were tested, the crew without symptoms would get their turn. Meanwhile, there were a few half-hearted attempts at social distancing for the crew. Some chairs in the cafeteria were removed, and the ship's staff was told to keep a chair's space from the next person at meals. Eventually, they ate in smaller groups in shifts.
For the first few days of quarantine, Captain Arma had made separate announcements to the passengers and crew. But now he started broadcasting to the entire ship at once. “That was probably good for everyone, like a wake-up call,” he explains, “to say yes, the crew is here to support and assist you, but we're all sharing the same problem.” He called for them to stay “strong and united” against a common foe, “literally in the same boat.”
Arma looks like a sea-weathered Patrick Dempsey, with blue eyes and hair that's graying at the temples. A carpenter's son, he grew up on Italy's Sorrento peninsula steeped in the region's seafaring lore and his mom's devotion to Love Boat. He enrolled in a nautical vocational school and then started “from the very bottom” as a deck boy on a chemical tanker, scrubbing dishes through a winter on the Baltic Sea. He worked as a senior officer on the Diamond Princess' maiden voyage from the Nagasaki shipyard in 2004 and returned as its charismatic 43-year-old captain in 2018.
That Baltic winter gave him perspective to appreciate his privileges and the experience to cajole his crew, whose duty he says was to continue serving the passengers. He had taken to calling them “my gladiators” in his PA announcements, which rallied even Alex. “This captain was beautiful,” he says. “We could have stopped working, but we did not, because of the encouragement and those gladiator speeches.”
On February 10, Arma announced 66 new cases of Covid-19, bringing the total to 136. This raised alarm among experts in the US. The next day, Eva Lee, an infectious disease specialist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, sent an email to health experts and government officials who were tracking the virus's spread. She called the Diamond a “quarantine nightmare with missing opportunities and missteps,” especially with regard to testing. “The spread—no doubt—involves those without symptoms,” she wrote; she was eager for Japanese authorities to test everyone on board. (The high-level email chain, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, was published in The New York Times.) Dr. Carter Mecher, an adviser at the Department of Veterans Affairs, called the 136 cases on the Diamond “unbelievable” and bemoaned the US lack of preparation: “We are so far behind the curve.” (It would be 39 days before California became the first state to implement social distancing measures.)
The Diamond's crew was starting to lose its composure. A crew member flung his ship access card from a deck onto the pier below in what the company called “an act of rebellion.” A group of workers from India posted a video to Facebook pleading for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to evacuate them: “Please save us from this swamp.” Three days later, a 24-year-old security officer named Sonali Thakkar appeared on CNN, saying she had a cough and fever and had been isolated but not tested; a Japanese vice minister of health conceded to the network that treatment between passengers and crew “is not all equal.” The Filipina cook admired the Indian crew members for speaking out: “They have balls, unlike us. We are silenced by our fears of losing our jobs.”
Trying to lighten things up, a Filipino galley crew, wearing face masks and kitchen uniforms, choreographed a group dance to Justin Bieber's “Yummy.” Another cook named Mae Fantillo posted the video on Twitter with a buoyant message: “We all know that we're facing a crisis here … but hey we still managed to smile, laugh and dance.” Company brass and other Princess ships wished the crew well in videos with the rallying cry #HangInThereDiamondPrincess. And there was something else giving hope to the shipbound: February 19, the day the quarantine would end. Crew members filled Facebook posts with the countdown: “We're halfway there!!! 7 days to go!”
After hours of conference calls and meetings, Arma would end each day in his solitary suite on Deck 12, with an expansive view off the bow. There, he would Skype with his wife on the Sorrento coast and pray to a picture of Madonna del Lauro, the patroness of seafarers. Looking out his window, he, too, fantasized about escape. To him, that meant steering the Diamond Princess from this stagnant port to the open sea.
At the outset of week two, a punch-drunk tedium sank in among the passengers. Matt Smith listened behind his door for the rumble of the coffee cart each morning, ready to pounce. Someone unfurled a “Trump 2020” sign from their balcony for the TV cameras. Servers cheerily called “Bon appétit!” as they pushed the food down the hallway, one wearing a shark head hat for laughs. Dozens of passengers taped thank-you notes to the crew on the outside of their cabin doors. “You're literally keeping us alive,” one wrote. When Covid-negative medically vulnerable people were given the choice to move to an isolation facility onshore, more than 80 percent chose the devil they knew, staying on the Diamond.
Smith tweeted meal reviews to his followers, now up to a robust 14,000. “The beef was tender and well-seasoned.” “Who doesn't like cake?” Arnold Hopland relished the fresh air breaks on an astroturfed deck, springing from his cabin like a terrier from a cage. He'd pump medical workers for details on how the quarantine was being run.
One day, Jeanie Hopland opened the cabin door to find that a new steward had replaced the Ukrainian who'd been bringing them fresh sheets and towels. “What happened?” Jeanie asked.
He got sick.
This got Arnold spun up all over again. After a week of wrangling to get his Verizon international plan rolling, Hopland started dialing reporters, convinced the virus was still actively being spread despite quarantine. On February 12 he finally reached the person he'd been trying to get ahold of since day one: an old doctor friend from Tennessee named Phil Roe, who also happened to be a member of Congress.
Hopland told Roe about the conditions on the ship, and Roe immediately saw the risk that the virus could still be spreading. Within hours, Hopland found himself on a conference call with “the top of the food chain,” he says. On the call were Roe and Robert Kadlec, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services, and medical experts from the CDC and the National Institutes of Health. “It was a bunch of nerdy doctors like us talking,” Roe says. “To have eyes on the ground was extremely helpful.” Hopland lambasted the quarantine: the lack of testing, the honor system for reporting symptoms, the hospitality workers' thin gloves and surgeon's masks. He urged them to bring passengers back to the States for a legitimate isolation, as had been done for Americans in Wuhan earlier that month. Roe says he and Kadlec agreed: “I said, listen, we're the best in the world at evacuating people.” Yet other voices on the line, Roe says, worried about the risk of bringing Covid-exposed people to the US, which had only 14 domestic cases at the time. They suggested the Japanese had the situation under control, a contention Hopland angrily countered. (Roe calls it a “robust discussion.”) Jeanie patted her husband's head and told him to calm down.
The next day, February 13, a letter signed by Roe and eight other members of Congress was sent to three cabinet secretaries warning of “deteriorating conditions” on the ship. They urged that the 428 US citizens and permanent residents be tested, and those who tested negative be evacuated by air to US soil.
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Alex awoke with a start. His body felt like a stove. He poked his thermometer under his armpit: still a normal 37.5 Celsius. Was it broken? He'd been unable to sleep for more than two hours at a time. His insomnia, like any new tic or sneeze, felt suspect. He visited the makeshift medical center on board, asking if his thermometer was broken. It worked fine, he says they told him.
On February 13, a total of 218 people on board the Diamond had tested positive for the coronavirus, and the WHO declared the ship the largest Covid cluster outside of Wuhan. Infections were cresting for crew members, while the case numbers among passengers had begun to ease. The company sent hand sanitizer, vitamins, bottled water, Cup Noodles, and chips to the crew. But Alex wanted the same thing Hopland did: to be taken off the ship and tested for Covid-19.
The Japanese Ministry of Health had distributed temporary iPhones to passengers and crew, preinstalled with an app for free calls along with a list of numbers to get medications, medical appointments, and counseling. Alex used the phone to contact a Japanese doctor onshore. In a video call, he confided his surging anxiety. Was insomnia a sign of the virus? What should he do? He says the doctor told him that he wasn't sick and just needed sunlight and air.
An email from the US embassy in Japan appeared in the American passengers' inboxes on the afternoon of Saturday, February 15. The government was recommending that citizens come home, “out of an abundance of caution.” Most Diamond passengers had been getting tested to determine their fate at the quarantine's end, and only those Americans who did not have Covid-19 could take charter flights to the US the following night. When they arrived, they would have to spend another 14 days in isolation. Anyone rejecting the evacuation could stay in Japan on their own dime after the ship's quarantine ended, until they were cleared by the CDC to fly home. Everyone needed to decide by 10 am the next morning.
Arnold Hopland rejoiced. His advocacy had worked. Matt Smith and his wife, Katherine, however, imagined a flight in close quarters with people whose Covid status was hazy. Even a negative test was just a snapshot of the moment the swab was taken. Most important, just four days stood between them and freedom in Tokyo. Going home guaranteed more isolation. Smith had read about Hopland's efforts in a Politico article and tweeted about them: Was this “rescue”—in scare quotes—“an honest humanitarian effort or political cronyism?”
Hopland packed his bags, unmoved by Smith's taunting. That Sunday, he and Jeanie waited for the call to board chartered buses, snapping a victorious selfie in the mirror. When the knock came, they stood up for their departure. They were greeted by a health worker who said Jeanie couldn't leave: She had tested positive for the virus. She felt fine, but Jeanie was headed for a Tokyo hospital isolation room. Hopland picked up Jeanie's phone and downloaded the Life360 tracking app so that he could see where she would be taken.
More than 300 Americans trundled out of their suites and onto charter buses, heading for the evacuation flights. Smith, one of 61 who stayed on the ship, recorded the moment from his balcony, drolly tweeting, “the Departure of the Americans.”
En route to the airport, news reached US authorities in Japan handling the evacuation that not everyone who had newly tested positive had been culled from the group as Jeanie had: 14 people were sitting on the bus with Covid-19 at that very moment. For hours, as the buses sat parked on the airport tarmac, the CDC argued to the State Department that the Covid-positive travelers shouldn't be allowed on the flights, but, according to The Washington Post, the State Department pushed back. And won. Everyone ambled onto the Boeing 747 cargo planes. The Covid-positive group was seated in an area enclosed with hanging tarps. At least one passenger started feeling feverish on the flight and was moved into the sick warren midflight.
Arnold Hopland, who had pressed for the flights, stayed in Japan to be near his wife. Jeanie's infection deemed him a “close contact,” so his quarantine clock would be reset. Ferried to a dorm room at an accounting college, he passed the hours talking to reporters via FaceTime and cold-calling other bored ship alumni also isolated in the dorms on the landline, hoping to reach someone who could chat in English.
Around the time that US citizens were evacuated, Captain Arma got more news from the Japanese Ministry of Health. He braced himself to relay the message to the crew. Starting in four days, the rest of the passengers would disembark, but the workers would have to remain on board for another 14 days. Because they had worked and roamed the ship during the passenger quarantine, they'd continued to be exposed and needed a formal isolation period themselves.
So much for everyone being in the same boat. “That was the lowest moment for us,” Alex says.
As scores of passengers from Hong Kong, Australia, and Canada filed onto evacuation flights, at least one person wanted to get onto the Diamond Princess: a punctilious infectious disease specialist named Kentaro Iwata. He had been involved in the response to Ebola in Sierra Leone and had been a clinician during the SARS outbreak in China, and he was alarmed by the growing number of coronavirus cases in his own country's port.
After much bureaucratic jockeying, Iwata was cleared to go on board the ship on February 18, a day before the passenger quarantine was to end. By that time, 531 passengers had tested positive for Covid-19 and most had been moved to an onshore hospital. He made his way to the dining room that had been repurposed as the medical staging area and saw what he thought looked like a perfect stew for viral spread. Crew, officers, and medical workers walked around freely. Some were eating lunch and using phones with gloves on. No enforced green and red zones. One medical officer told him she was probably infected by now, so she was giving up on protective gear. (Three Japanese responders contracted Covid-19.)
After leaving the ship, he checked into a hotel room to stay isolated. Once there, he filmed videos in Japanese and English and posted them to YouTube. Iwata, a middle-aged man wearing a zip-up yellow sweater, spoke to the camera with barely suppressed anger, precisely describing the “completely inadequate” infection control he'd seen. “I cannot bear with it,” he said in one video. “We have to help people inside the ship.”
More than a million people watched Iwata's whistle-blowing video. The system wasn't perfect, the health ministry said. Still, it was too late to make much of a difference. Medical experts were calling the Japanese response a disaster. People who had finally been evacuated from the ship continued to test positive for Covid-19. On February 20 came another somber milestone: Two Japanese passengers in their eighties died, the Diamond's first fatalities, but not its last.
The widow of one Japanese victim told a television interviewer how she and her husband had sailed on the Diamond to celebrate their wedding anniversary. She couldn't enter his hospital room to say goodbye. “The nurse took his hand and put it up to the window and I placed mine on the other side. That was the end.”
Back in the US, experts were emailing about the quarantine's failure. The Diamond, wrote Lee of Georgia Tech, showed that timeliness was everything. “A delayed intervention,” she wrote, “cannot reverse the course and can be catastrophic.”
Two days after Iwata boarded, Smith and Codekas finally stepped off the Diamond's gangway. They checked into a Tokyo hotel, where the manager asked them not to tell anyone where they were staying. That night, Smith tweeted a photo of their celebratory martinis.
As the number of passengers on board dwindled, desperation grew among crew members. Ten Indonesian workers released a video to a news network pleading for an evacuation, as the group of Indian staffers had done 10 days earlier. “Dear Mr. President Jokowi, we are on the Diamond Princess in Yokohama, and we're afraid that we're being killed slowly,” they wrote. Fantillo, the cook who'd posted the cheery dance video days earlier, tweeted an urgent note:
Each day, the gravity of the situation only gets worse … We dont know where the virus really is. But we know, its all over. With all due respect to our company, we appreciate all the effort keeping us high in hopes. But right now, all we need is to… get all the external support needed.
On February 24, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in downtown Tokyo, three Japanese infectious disease experts sat before rows of journalists. The press conference was conducted in English, and one reporter asked, if all other countries were isolating the Diamond evacuees, “what was the point of the quarantine on the ship except to waste two weeks in the lives of those people? Very simply put: What did the quarantine achieve?”
Omi Shigeru, the distinguished president of the Japan Community Health Care Organization, responded by referencing data. Much of the spread among passengers had happened before the infection was discovered, and certainly before the quarantine began on February 5. Passengers had mixed on board “for social enjoyment, movie watching, dining, dancing, sometimes they are drunk … I admit the isolation policy was not perfect. A ship is a ship. A ship is not a hospital. Though isolation was somewhat effective, it was not perfect.”
The mea culpas and rationalizations continued for more than an hour: Getting 4,000 people into hospitals or hotels immediately is very difficult. The crew had to keep working, and we're grateful. It was a tough decision. History will be the judge.
Some preliminary judgments came quickly. Calculations from Japanese and US researchers concluded that the quarantine, for all its flaws, had staved off a second ballooning of the virus among passengers. But a study from Swedish, British, and German researchers concluded that if everyone had been let off on February 3 and properly taken care of, only 2 percent of them—or 76 people, instead of 712—would have been infected.
A few days before the press conference, the health ministry had changed course and allowed workers to disembark. Before they could leave, the galley staff was told to sanitize the kitchen with chlorine, the Filipina cook says, though the large-scale disinfection of the ship would be done by a biohazard contractor once everyone left. Chartered flights shepherded hundreds of workers and a smattering of passengers home—445 to the Philippines, 113 to India, and, lastly, on March 1, 69 Indonesians walked off the ship.
Watching them go, Captain Arma realized the moment he'd been dreading had come. He paused before the bank of navigation panels. “Despite the fact that they are a giant piece of metal,” Arma told me, “every ship has a soul. And there has been a special connection between me and the Diamond.” They'd faced a typhoon and a disease outbreak watched around the world. He thanked the ship for pushing him, for working with him, for sparing him any mechanical breakdown that would have made a bad situation worse. Before leaving, he powered up the PA for a final salute to the empty decks: “Good night, Diamond Princess.”
The Diamond Princess was the cruise industry's patient zero. Throughout the spring, new Covid-infested ships kept beaching in ports, more than 20 gleaming fail whales of public health. After a Californian who'd disembarked from the Grand Princess in San Francisco tested positive for Covid-19 and died, US authorities forced the ship to anchor off the coast of California for several days while passengers stayed in their cabins and crew brought food to their doors. Carnival and health officials had learned some things: Once the ship was allowed to dock in Oakland on March 9, the passengers disembarked and were shuttled straight into isolation. Princess paid for repatriation flights for hundreds of workers. Yet for the next month, 614 crew members remained on the ship while it was parked in San Francisco Bay, most undergoing an on-ship quarantine. A Filipino crew member who had contracted Covid-19 was evacuated but died in a San Francisco hospital. And one day before the CDC demanded it, Carnival Corporation canceled all cruises for the spring.
When the order came to halt cruises, many were already underway. The industry plowed ahead with missteps. The Ruby Princess and Australian border agents let 2,700 untested passengers disembark in Sydney on March 19, and the ship was linked to more than 600 infections and at least 21 deaths in Australia. In early April, Australian police, alleging that Carnival had informed local authorities that Covid-19 wasn't an issue on the ship, launched a criminal investigation. Crew members of a Celebrity Cruises ship sued Royal Caribbean, the parent company, for failing to protect them from Covid. A growing number of Carnival passengers did the same, filing suit for negligence in allowing cruises to continue after the Diamond debacle. (Princess says it is cooperating with Australian authorities and that it does not comment on pending litigation.)
The Diamond didn't beat Mother Nature. Of the 712 people infected on board, 14 passengers died. Jeanie Hopland stayed in a Tokyo hospital room with three other Diamond Princess alumni for two weeks before being cleared to go home. Arnold, holed up in the college dorms, finally arrived at the Knoxville, Tennessee, airport a week after Jeanie got there.
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Princess refunded everyone's cruise expenses and offered each passenger a free cruise in the future. Hopland plans to take them up on it. He has no beef with the crew. “Trying to contain a quarantine is a tough medical problem, and they had no expertise and a facility not designed for it. They were given an impossible assignment.” Smith, once cleared to fly back to Sacramento, continued tweeting his meals and his general skepticism of coronavirus shutdowns.
After his isolation onshore in Japan, Captain Arma flew back to Rome. On the ride to his coastal town of Sant'Agnello, Arma asked the driver to make a stop at the crisp white Basilica Pontificia Santa Maria del Lauro. It was after 11 pm, and Arma faced the door to pray for the sick still in Japan and for his own country, besieged by the same virus.
In April, I talked to Arma on the phone with two Princess crisis consultants listening in. How would the Diamond be remembered? I asked. Arma, both a company man and a romantic, returned to his favorite metaphor. “A diamond is a chunk of coal that did well under pressure,” he responded. “I would like to think we'll be remembered as one big family that, under some very challenging times, remained united with sacrifice and went through these problems.”
Some of his team, at least publicly, expressed the same conclusion. Back in their home countries, crew members stuck #PrincessProud logos over their Facebook profile pictures and #Gladiators on social media. WIRED reached out to dozens, but few wanted to talk. One wrote in an email, “In my view, at least we did well under a challenging and complicated situation. But I wish we could realize how dangerous that virus is. If so we could have controlled it more tightly.” The Filipina cook thought the Japanese government had done the best it could. But she's struggling. The two months' wages that Princess paid the Diamond crew because sailings were canceled fall short of covering her expenses while the industry was on pause. “We all risked our lives. But that's the decision. We can't do anything. We're helpless.” Alex told me that whatever indignities happened on the Diamond, he's broke and has no option but to sign up for the next cruise that will have him.
The world's attention soon swept to more urgent battles. In the US, the early response to Covid had been not unlike the Diamond's. The country continued to cha-cha and play bingo while the virus ping-ponged among crowds. As the crisis swelled, Carnival offered up waylaid ships as overflow facilities to funnel non-coronavirus patients from overburdened ICUs. Turns out, the company said, the ships make excellent hospitals. Cleaning and meals courtesy of the crew.
LAUREN SMILEY (@laurensmiley) is a regular contributor to WIRED.
Additional reporting by Sherbien Dacalanio.
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