Sometimes a cruise ship can be hell.
It’s certainly true of the Diamond Princess, docked outside Yokohama, Japan, since Feb. 4. Roughly 3,500 people, of which around 1,000 are crew members, remain quarantined and will not be permitted to leave the ship until Feb. 19, assuming everything goes as planned. To date 454 coronavirus cases have been confirmed aboard the ship, but there could very well be more.
No other closed population in the world has as high a proportion of coronavirus infections as do the passengers and crew of the Diamond Princess: 13% of the people on board are infected. The cruise ship is a miniature version of Wuhan, the Chinese city of 11 million people where the new coronavirus, known as COVID-19, was first detected. So far, tens of thousands have been infected in China and, as of Monday, 1,770 people have died there, including the doctor who first warned of the outbreak.
The tragedy of this epidemic, which has forced entire cities to be quarantined, is that it could have been prevented long ago. Instead of a worldwide crisis we could have had only a few cases. If Chinese authorities had been more transparent about the existence of the disease, the international community could have taken the steps necessary to isolate the first victims within Wuhan.
But that didn’t happen. Local officials censored early reports about the virus and tried to suppress information about the epidemic. As the disease spread, the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency. Today there are confirmed cases of COVID-19 in 28 countries or territories outside of mainland China.
In China, dogma has been prioritized over public health, party has come before country and maintaining a tight grip on Beijing’s international image has proved more important than controlling the spread of a serious disease. Each report of a new infection reveals deep flaws in the party’s system of secrecy and repression. China’s leaders have a crucial lesson to learn: Withholding information that is in the public interest can only lead to disaster.
It was in late December that Dr. Li Wenliang told his former medical school classmates about a seemingly dangerous virus. The local police in Wuhan chose to ignore him, and didn’t look into the matter. Li was accused of spreading rumors and forced to take back his statements. He was made to sign a document declaring that his behavior had been “illegal.”
It wasn’t until Jan. 20 that a renowned Chinese scientist, Dr. Zhong Nanshan, appeared on state-run television to announce that the coronavirus could be transmitted between humans. Unfortunately, the warning had come too late. By then, the epidemic was already spiraling out of control, infecting people far beyond Wuhan.
Eventually it reached the Diamond Princess — where José Antonio Alatorre, a Mexican citizen, and his wife Lissa were staying. Today, given the threat of infection, the couple remain inside their windowless cabin at all times. “Day or night, it’s the same to us in this interior room,” José Antonio said in a recent interview with Univision, recorded by his wife on her cellphone. “[Even] if we had a balcony, we would have chosen not to go outside for a walk for one hour each day, as we’re allowed.”
Fortunately, food isn’t a problem. José Antonio and Lissa receive three meals each day in their room. It’s the entirety of their contact with the outside world.
The Alatorres have stuck to the instructions given to them by the cruise line and Japan’s Health Ministry: They wash their own cutlery, and use their shower as a washing machine. Japan of course can’t take any risks; the nation is hosting the Olympics this summer.
The real fear is that the coronavirus will reach the world’s poorest countries, which lack the resources and medical personnel to tackle a health crisis of this magnitude. In rural Latin America and Africa, the arrival of the virus would be an absolute disaster. Remember that over 11,000 people died from the Ebola virus in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia between March 2014 and January 2016.
“What’s dangerous,” Dr. Juan Rivera told me in an interview, “is that with the coronavirus, even if people show no symptoms, they can still be incubating the virus and pass it on.” The outbreak hasn’t shown any signs of stabilizing, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the U.S., told The New York Times that a vaccine won’t be available for at least a year.
In the meantime, life goes on for the Alatorres, afraid and in the dark aboard the Diamond Princess. They want to return to Mexico, just not at any cost. “I’m afraid I could pass [the virus] on to my loved ones or other people,” José Antonio said. They know they can survive this hell.
At least their nightmare on the high seas is free. The cruise line has said it will reimburse passengers for the cost of the trip. The company’s credibility, however, is lost forever; once it has been ruined, there’s no way to get it back. (This is a lesson we journalists know well.)
Officials in Wuhan forgot — or perhaps never knew — that crises in our globalized and digitized era can only be solved with full transparency.
The new coronavirus proves that silence can kill. And the deeper and more pervasive the silence, the more people will die.