When the Diamond Princess left the port of Yokohama in Japan on January 20, the 2,666 passengers on board were ready to unwind with a trip to China, Vietnam and Taiwan. But two weeks later they’d find themselves confined to their cabins, allowed out for only a few hours each day, while 542 of their fellow passengers and crew tested positive for Covid-19–the novel virus that has infected 75,000 people worldwide.
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
While the Covid-19 outbreak has been slow to take hold outside of China, the Diamond Princess has been a hotspot of infection. Of all the confirmed cases outside of China, more than half of them were on the cruise ship. Singapore, the country with the next-highest number of cases, has just 77 confirmed infections. This is how a pleasure trip in east Asia turned into a battleground in the fight against a deadly epidemic.
For more than two weeks, the passengers of the Diamond Princess have swapped three-course dinners for boxed meals doled out three times a day by crew in masks and gloves, prepared by a temporary kitchen set up on shore by a charity that normally supplies meals during natural disasters. The casino is shut, but the creaky Wi-Fi remains available, and Amazon deliveries are reportedly making it on board, although the alcohol started to run out midway through the quarantine.
While the official quarantine is set to end on February 19, most of the passengers will require further patience as they face a further two weeks in isolation when they return to their home countries–and for those unlucky enough to catch Covid-19, a stint in hospital.
On February 1, a passenger who had disembarked five days earlier in Hong Kong was diagnosed with Covid-19. The ship’s voyage was paused on February 4 by health authorities for 24 hours for a health check, but Princess Cruises quickly cancelled the entire trip, docking in Yokohama to give more time to check passengers and crew. Ten passengers were found to be infected, and taken ashore for medical treatment.
Two days later, the number of infected had risen to 41, but the Japanese Ministry of Health believed at the time no further tests were required. The remaining passengers were asked to quarantine on board, with the cruise company offering free internet access, switching on additional satellite TV channels, and offering those in rooms without any windows a chance to get a breath of fresh air on deck now and then. Passengers tweeted photos of flowers, chocolates and other gifts handed out by staff, including games and cards for children.
“We hope these gestures will lift the spirits of those onboard in this difficult time,” said Rai Caluori, EVP at Princess Cruises, in a written update at the time. Official updates were shared via notes printed out and slid under cabin doors, while passengers left thank-you messages for crew pinned to their doors, but also turned to social media to share their boredom, frustration, and anxiety.
On February 8, another six cases were found, and a day later, a further 66. Princess Cruises told passengers it will refund all their costs, including air travel, not charge for anything onboard during the lockdown, and offer a free cruise in the future–should anyone want to take that up. The cruise company also offered passengers the option to complete their quarantine at a shoreside location, but stressed they had no medical staff and all food would be Japanese style bento boxes; those who do disembark are tested for the virus first.
Shortly after, the US announced it would repatriate American passengers; one passenger who opted to remain on board reported hearing chants of “USA!” and “get me off this ship” when their departure came. Infections continued to pile up, with 169 new cases the day before quarantine was supposed to end. An Australian doctor, tweeting about her parents quarantined on board, said: “He was tested and negative upon confinement but now positive. Confinement isn’t working.”