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The Coronavirus Diamond Princess Debacle and Government Responsibility

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When the Diamond Princess cruise ship set off from Yokohama, Japan, on Jan. 20, little did its passengers and crew know that they wouldn’t be ending the cruise in the same high spirits as when it took off. The coronavirus, also officially known as Covid-19, single-handedly turned their dream holiday into a nightmare of epic proportions. 

The cruise ship, with 2,666 passengers and 1,045 crew, had been to other ports in Hong Kong, Japan, Taipei, and Vietnam and would have ended on Feb. 4. But the voyage was abruptly cut a day ahead of its schedule, and the ship returned to the port in Yokohama to be placed on quarantine for 14 days, from Feb. 5 to Feb. 19.

A Chinese passenger who had boarded the ship when it left Yokohama and disembarked in Hong Kong on Jan. 25 tested positive for the coronavirus on Feb.1. The man already had a cough since Day 1 of the journey. 

Amid mounting criticism from foreign and local media, medical experts, and local oppositionists in Japan, the Japanese government did the best it could to test the passengers for the virus and institute control measures. It imposed a quarantine in the interest of public safety and health.

Japanese authorities have admitted that they may have committed errors in the handling of the quarantine process. But international protocol had to be observed, and crises like the virus-afflicted cruise ship had no precedents or established rules to follow. Another ignored issue is the ten cases that were already positive on the first day of testing on the ship, two days after the quarantine. Another ten were added on the second day, and 20 more on the third. It goes to show that contamination was already rampant while the ship was still on its cruise.

Testing kits were lacking, and the elderly and sick had to be prioritized. Designating quarantine facilities was difficult and may pose more problems. At the end of the isolation period, more than 700 passengers had contracted the virus, and many more who had left the ship tested positive afterward. Eight of Tokyo’s government workers who had gone inside the ship were infected. Six passengers have since died.

But why focus the condemnation on Japan alone? True, the ship’s lockdown wasn’t perfect, yet no words of appreciation for the steps that the Japanese administration had taken came from the critics who hadn’t even been there. It was the passengers on the Diamond Princess and those who were admitted to hospitals that were aware and grateful for the way the Japanese officials and doctors handled them. To them, Japan’s Health Ministry has not been negligent in its measures, out of concern for public health and humanitarian goodwill, since about half of the passengers and most of the crew were not Japanese nationals.

To date, the Diamond Princess has the largest cluster of coronavirus cases that is not a territory or country. It is a ship of an American-owned company, Princess Cruises, a subsidiary of Carnival Corporation, which is registered in Bermuda, a British island.

Not to evade responsibilities, but the fact that it had docked on Japanese waters does not necessarily make it solely Abe Shinzo’s responsibility. Going by global protocol, the cruise ship is a foreign entity in Tokyo. Should not the owners of Princess Cruises, and the US and UK governments have accepted responsibility too, and acted accordingly?

Yet, what did the Princess Cruises do besides issue press releases assuring the public that their primary concern is the health and safety of the people on board?

The media has made a fuss out of the passengers intermingling with each other and the crew. After the news, a former passenger on the ship had been confirmed positive for the virus. The ship management decided to continue the social activities and buffet meals to dispel boredom and keep the guests occupied.

Sick and healthy crew members made up mainly of Filipinos, Indians and Indonesians slept and dined together without protective gear and continued to serve the passengers. The Philippines’ health secretary has offered repatriation of the more than 500 Filipino crew members, but about 100 of them refused and preferred to stay on board for fear of losing their jobs.

The US government decided to evacuate the more than 400 American passengers only on Feb. 16-17, two days before the quarantine period ended. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was furious for allowing 14 of them who had been diagnosed positive to get on the plane, insisting that they should have been left behind in Japan.

The CDC, while seeming to commend Abe’s administration’s efforts, disparaged their actions without offering alternatives. Other US government physicians have been vocal about their opinions of Japan’s steps to contain the virus and attend to the people on board the ship. The US president, unsurprisingly, is as unhelpfully active on Twitter as always.

The UK government is tight-lipped on the incident, not criticizing or praising. Still, Britons on the ship are disappointed at their officials’ slow response, evacuating the virus-free Englishmen only after the quarantine period had ended.

All passengers and crew have since disembarked, with the last one out the ship’s captain. But the saga will long be remembered, especially by the people inside the Diamond Princess. Japan will no doubt be better prepared should a crisis erupt again on its shores.

And true to the Japanese traits of respect and politeness, its government adviser Dr. Norio Ohmagari apologized for the “not perfect” quarantine procedures, such as not isolating the crew immediately. But no apologies are forthcoming from the company and the countries that should have accepted responsibility for the fiasco.

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The Groucho


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