Two cruise ships carrying thousands of passengers have been stranded in Hong Kong and Japan having been caught up in the coronavirus outbreak.
The Diamond Princess, operated by UK-based Princess Cruises, has over 400 Hongkongers on board and remains docked in Yokohama under a quarantine period expected to last until next Wednesday. Meanwhile, passengers finally left the World Dream at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Cruise Terminal on Sunday, after all 35 crew members tested negative for the SARS-like infection. Crew members have now resumed their duties aboard the ship, an employee told HKFP, following a four-day lockdown.
Globally, there have been over 60,000 confirmed cases of the new “covid-19” virus and over 1,360 deaths, including one in Hong Kong.
In Japan, personnel from the health ministry took the temperature of everyone on board and collected their health declaration forms after the ship docked. Passengers are asked to take their body temperatures every few hours with a thermometer distributed by the ministry and report to the medical centre if the reading exceeds 37.5 degrees Celcius.
The ministry arranged tests for passengers over the age of 80 but testing over 3,000 passengers would be a “logistics nightmare” said Diamond Princess passenger Mrs Miu in a voice recording played at a press conference held by Hong Kong democrat Helena Wong. “I am concerned about whether hospitals in Japan will be overloaded with more confirmed cases,” she said.
Interactions among passengers have been minimised abroad the ship: “From my balcony, I see the cleaning staff spraying disinfectant every now and then,” said Mrs Li, a 61-year-old retired Hong Kong civil servant.
Passengers with windowless interior rooms are allowed to move around the deck in timed batches where they have to maintain a two-metre distance from one another.
“We are lucky to have a balcony where we can breathe in fresh air. I have only left my room twice,” Li told HKFP.
For much of the day, passengers are not allowed to leave their cabins and staff are stationed at corridors to monitor the situation.
Access to medical care has often been slow. Li’s husband needs medication for chronic diabetes and a cardiovascular disease. Last Thursday, they were asked to fill out a form to request medicine to last the rest of the quarantine period. The package arrived three days later, but some other passengers with long-term medical needs waited four days.
One passenger, who recently received a kidney transplant, was in desperate need of immunosuppressive drugs and another with chronic hypertension also had a shortage of prescribed medication in the early days of the quarantine.
At the Hong Kong press event, Wong said there were 260 HKSAR passport holders and over 400 Hong Kong residents on board. She urged the government to send a charter flight and pick up stranded citizens: “We are in close contact with the Economic and Trade Representative in Tokyo, the Security Bureau and Immigration Department to discuss feasible solutions,” the Democratic Party lawmaker said.
Princess Cruises promised Li and other foreign visitors to Japan – a fifth of passengers – a complimentary transit service to the airport when the quarantine period is over.
“We will take the first direct flight back to Hong Kong,” said Li: “But of course I would very much prefer a chartered flight arranged by the government. We don’t feel safe on board as confirmed cases are significantly increasing. Everyone is still breathing in the same air.”
The couple underwent coronavirus testing on Wednesday and are expecting a result on Friday. Those who pass the test will be allowed to leave a day later, though the pair have vowed to remain as their current flights home are booked for the 19th.
Life on board
In the meantime, passengers have tried to make the most of the limited living space. Aun Na Tan, a mother aboard the Diamond Princess posted daily updates online of herself enjoying meals and doing gymnastics with her family.
Here we go…this is how the family use what little space we have in the room for stretches and exercise. #diamondprincesscruise #quarantine #exercise #stretchingexercises pic.twitter.com/SrrTHZvIUk
— Aun Na Tan (@qtiepie) February 8, 2020
The company has offered complimentary WiFi which is speedy and stable, but disconnects when the cruise ship leaves dock every day or two to “perform normal marine operations” at open sea. Food, supplies, and other provisions are obtained from Yokohama and meals are offered via room service. TV channels and movies are available, though other entertainment programmes have been cancelled.
Entertainment was also limited aboard the World Dream, quarantined in Hong Kong over virus concerns, though passengers were able to more freely move around. Chau Ka-ho, a stunt actor, told HKFP that he didn’t panic during the days-long quarantine: “I did exercise in outdoor areas such as the basketball court to kill time,” he said. The swimming pools were drained and facilities like saunas, casinos and gym rooms were nevertheless closed.
Around six mahjong tables were on deck at first. “Since some players were not cooperative in wearing surgical masks, the company later decided to remove the tables,” Chau said, causing some upset among the guests.
Ms Chan, a 28-year-old management officer aboard World Dream told HKFP that she was frustrated by a lack of transparency from the cruise company in releasing information.
In an official statement Chan received, Dream Cruises said they were informed by Chinese officials last Monday that three passengers from previous voyages dating back to late January were diagnosed with the infection. A day later, the itinerary seemed to be unaffected, but the ship was refused docking in Taiwan.
“Why hadn’t the company informed us as they came across the information? We had no clue before that Taiwan had banned us from landing,” said Chan, who did not realise the setback until the local travel agency’s coaches at Kaohsiung pier turned around. A public address system gave updates throughout the trip, yet she learned about the quarantine from online news outlets as World Dream docked at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak a day later.
“Internet [on board] was slow and it took hours to download a document. Working remotely was almost impossible,” said Chan, whose vacation was scheduled to end last Friday.
Two of the three restaurants on the ship served buffets only. Chan said that being exposed to a potentially virus-infected environment and the risk of infection made her finish her meals as quickly as possible.
But she remained patient and said she understood the dilemma of on-board quarantine: “I don’t think staying in the cruise ship is ideal. What if the ship itself becomes a source of virus already and because of the central ventilation everyone aboard is going to be infected sooner or later?” Meanwhile, accommodating 1,800 at quarantine centres overnight was not feasible, she added.
The Diamond Princess saw 60 confirmed cases initially, but at least 219 people – including 15 crew – had contracted the virus by Thursday, according to Japan’s Health Minister Katsunobu Kato.
The company issued a statement to passengers offering a full refund and “Future Cruise Credit” applicable to future bookings.
World Dream, on the other hand, covered HK$500 expenses per room and returned passengers’ HK$186 port service fee after the ship was declined entry at Kaohisung.
“The travel agency asked before departure if we wanted to go on with the trip as scheduled in light of worldwide coronavirus outbreak. The only other option was to change to another trip at same rate later this year,” passenger Ms Chan said. “We chose to go ahead.”
Wing On Travel eventually offered a full refund to customers who opted not to board, according to district councillor Rosanda Mok on Tuesday, but the uncertainty continues for those docked in Yokohama.
As passenger Mrs Li awaits her test results, she said was surprised by the recent uptick in infections: “I can’t help but wonder why the rate did not slow down at all after nine days of quarantine. I am anxious and intimidated by the situation, not knowing if I will be infected eventually.”