Asia Life | Society

The Ordeal of the Diamond Princess Crew  

The controversial two-week quarantine was even more difficult for the cruise ship’s crew members, most of whom hail from the Philippines, India, or Indonesia.

By Sribala Subramanian for
The Ordeal of the Diamond Princess Crew  

A photographer takes photos near the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship anchored at a port in Yokohama, near Tokyo, Feb. 21, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko

On Valentine’s Day, Mae Fantillo tweeted a video of crew members dancing on board the Diamond Princess, staying positive in the face of a crisis. The cruise ship had been quarantined in Japan’s Yokohama Port following an outbreak of novel coronavirus.

By the time the quarantine ended on February 19, however, Fantillo was no longer upbeat. “Each day, the gravity of the situation only gets worse…We dont know where the virus really is,” she tweeted. She was breaking with protocol and reaching out to the Philippines’ embassy in Japan.

More than 70 percent of the 1,045 crew members on board the quarantined ship hail from three Asian countries: the Philippines, India, and Indonesia. The plight of the crew is part of the unfolding story of the cruise ship, which had the biggest cluster of COVID-19 cases outside China. Among the 636 people infected on board to date, more than 50 are crew members.

For those remaining on the ship, the ordeal is far from over. The crew are helping disinfect the cabins and will soon begin their “formal quarantine” since they were not isolated in the first place. Instead the crew had worked long hours to keep the quarantined ship running.

During the quarantine, the crew delivered food, water, and medicine to passengers, potentially exposing themselves to the virus. “During the first two or three days, we were ranting, because we didn’t want to… face the passengers,” one member of the dining staff told TIME. The crew were also sharing rooms, toilets, and dining spaces. As some of them tested positive for the virus, the unfairness of the quarantine system became apparent. Even Japan’s vice minister of health, Gaku Hashimoto, conceded in an interview with CNN that conditions on the ship were “not all equal.”

A number of infectious disease experts expressed concern that the quarantine was failing in part because the crew was not isolated. Michael Mina, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, tweeted that the “crew cannot self quarantine, and room together. Clearly this has transmitted among them placing all at unacceptable risk.”

Arnold Hopland, a doctor and passenger on the Diamond Princess, told Politico, “The crew is scared to death … they’re frightened and they’re packed together in tight quarters, working elbow to elbow.”

Crew members took to social media, asking their governments to get them off the ship. Some responses were encouraging. “I want them home now,” said Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin. Most Filipino crew members favored evacuation, but some opted to complete their quarantine on the ship.

The Indonesian government, meanwhile, offered prayers and sent care packages containing instant noodles and Vitamin C. The Indian embassy in Tokyo has been posting regular updates, but the 132 Indian crew members were hoping for more concrete action. Sonali Thakkar, who works on the ship’s security team, taped a video message saying that the Indians did not want to be quarantined on the ship for another two weeks: “We want to come back to India.”

In an otherwise bleak scenario, there is one silver lining. The crew members are young and their infection rate, at around 5 percent, is much lower than the 20 percent rate observed among passengers. Those being treated in local hospitals are reportedly stable. One Filipino crew member has fully recovered and was set to be discharged.

There was also good news for Mae Fantillo by the end of the week. The Philippine government announced that it was arranging for around 480 citizens from the Diamond Princess – crew and passengers alike — to fly back home.

Sribala Subramanian writes on environment and health, focusing on Asia. Her work has been published in The Guardian, The Wire and Eurasia Review. Follow her on Twitter: @bsubram