On January 20th, some 2,500 passengers arrived at the port of Yokohama, where American sailors had disembarked 167 years earlier, ending more than two centuries of Japanese isolation. They looked forward to a cruise that would ferry them from one Asian port to the next, unencumbered by the demands of self-propelled tourism. Indulgence, at whatever price point they could afford, was their only concern as they left behind their jobs, retirement routines and cares for two untroubled weeks at sea.
The brochures called the Diamond Princess “a precious gemstone on the seas of the world”, where, “day or night, it’s always an adventure.” The scene for that adventure was a 116,000-tonne cruise liner the length of three football pitches, which carries over 1,000 crew members in addition to its complement of passengers. From a distance it gleams white, with a belt of bright orange lifeboats wrapped around its midriff. Up close the main deck, which is dappled with swimming pools and hot tubs, has been painted shades of chemical blue and toothpaste green that manage to look simultaneously washed out and radiant. On one side of the ship passengers can shoot nine holes on the putting course; on the other they can run laps of an outdoor track or complete their round of golf in a simulator.
The Diamond Princess exists in a strange historical limbo. Though the Wi-Fi is high-speed, there are nightclubs and bars with retro names like Skywalkers, Club Fusion and Wheelhouse, that combine live music, mood lighting and the inoffensive ennui of the international hotel aesthetic. In Churchill’s Lounge you can bathe in cigar smoke amid an array of upholstered leather armchairs. For the kids there are crèches and youth centres filled with games, gadgets and guitars. Parents can recuperate in the “sanctuary”, an adults-only retreat within a retreat. Guests can skip from concerts to the casino, watch comedians and magicians, take part in quizzes and art auctions.
Then there’s the food. The Diamond Princess has a steakhouse, a pizzeria and restaurants specialising in sushi and Italian cuisine. Buffets offer prime rib, escargots and crème brûlée, all served in gigantic portions at every hour of the day or night. The ship has its own mixologist, sommelier and chocolatier.
The Diamond Princess is one of about 300 cruise ships that circle the globe each year. Last year they carried 30m passengers through holidays that seem to belong to another time, before travellers prized authenticity over luxury, sustainability over excess and adventure over sedentary stimulation. However outdated the cruise experience may seem, more passengers are enjoying it than ever before. Last year Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest cruise-ship conglomerate, which owns Princess Cruises along with eight other lines and carries half the world’s cruise passengers each year, brought in record-setting revenues of $21bn.
Some cruise companies devote themselves to constructing the biggest possible ships in which to cram a near-inexhaustible supply of choices for dining and entertainment for as many people as possible (Symphony of the Seas, the world’s largest cruise liner, can accommodate nearly 7,000 passengers). Princess Cruises prides itself on the personal experience it provides. Jeraldine Saunders, a former Princess employee, wrote in her memoir “The Love Boats” in 1974 that the ship’s cruise director – her former role – was “the one person aboard every luxury liner who is responsible for keeping everyone happy”. (A long-running TV series, based on that book, followed the romantic exploits of the fictional passengers.) Decades on, the purpose of a Princess cruise remains the same: to encourage customers to socialise with the crew and fellow guests, rather than merely cleave to the friends and family with whom they boarded.
For people who have never taken a cruise, the world can be neatly divided into two groups: those who would pay for such an experience and those who would pay to avoid it. But cruise-goers know that each ship contains a hierarchy that mirrors society at large. You can book a suite with an ocean view or choose a small cabin in the bowels of the boat. Many passengers are retired professionals with modest pensions, who can afford to travel for weeks at sea each year if they get the cheapest, windowless cabins and spend all their time up on deck. In the most cramped quarters of all, an army of waiters, cleaners and cooks sleep when they can, and otherwise devote themselves to pampering the ship’s guests. They encourage passengers to enjoy extras, like boozing, gambling, high-end jewellery sales and art auctions, on which Princess Cruises makes much of its money.
As the Diamond Princess prepared to depart Yokohama on January 20th, the authorities in China were struggling to deal with an outbreak of a new coronavirus that had been identified in Wuhan, a city in central China. The virus appeared to cause severe pneumonia in some people afflicted, and was spreading rapidly. In the five days that it took the ship to sail from Yokohama to Hong Kong, the number of confirmed covid-19 infections worldwide more than quadrupled to 1,320 cases. Most of these were in mainland China; five were in Hong Kong.
Carlos Soto and Yardley Wong boarded the Diamond Princess in Hong Kong on January 25th, the first day of the Chinese New Year. It was a family holiday. Along with their young son, they were joined by Wong’s parents and an aunt and uncle. Wong had booked the trip months before and the couple were preparing to celebrate their wedding anniversary aboard.
With the coronavirus outbreak already encroaching on Hong Kong, Soto and Wong worried about infection and packed plenty of face masks and hand sanitiser. They had to answer a health questionnaire before they boarded. “But once we got on the ship, we found that people weren’t really wearing masks,” Soto said. “Life on the ship was very lively – lots of shows, lots of entertainment.”
The burgeoning epidemic in the region was reflected in some small gestures. Guests were reminded to wash their hands before eating. Some doors were left open, so people didn’t need to touch the handles. But when the couple saw that no one else was taking any further precautions, they stowed their masks and hand sanitiser in their small, windowless cabin and spent their days jostling with other passengers in the dining halls and auditoriums. From February 1st, rumours began to circulate that someone who had disembarked in Hong Kong had tested positive for covid-19. Wong and Soto immediately thought of all those meals they’d eaten and shows they’d watched at close quarters. The unused masks that they had brought aboard preyed on their minds.
On the evening of January 27th, as the Diamond Princess sailed out of the port of Chan May in Vietnam, Spencer Fehrenbacher, a 29-year-old Canadian from Vancouver, began to feel feverish. His body ached, his head burned and he kept breaking out in cold sweats. For the next 24 hours, while other passengers disembarked at Ha Long bay, an expanse of emerald-blue waters dotted with lush forested islands, Fehrenbacher curled up in his bed. His American roommate took the decision to sleep on the floor of the cabin next door, with their two other travelling companions. On the evening of the 28th, as the ship made its way towards Taiwan, Fehrenbacher started to feel like himself again.
Fehrenbacher had travelled from Tianjin, a city just south of Beijing, where he’d enrolled in a graduate programme in international business studies a year earlier. By the time he and his friend joined the ship on January 20th, they had heard stories about the new coronavirus. Ten days earlier, the first death in Wuhan had been announced.
“I felt like we were a bit more aware of the seriousness of the coronavirus because we’d been living in China,” Fehrenbacher said. In Kagoshima, the Japanese city where the ship docked on January 22nd, the group “stopped by a 7-Eleven and bought some surgical masks, which were still easy to find in stock at any store back then”. But like Soto and Wong only days later, they were seduced by the untroubled demeanour of their shipmates and laid the prophylactics aside when they returned aboard.
Cruise-ship life was a chance “to do nothing for two weeks”, apart from some mellow partying. Fehrenbacher’s oceanview double on the ship’s Baja deck became a waypoint between quiz nights and trips to the jacuzzi. Fellow passengers called the group the “Baja boys”.
“It was a little weird at first, you know, being the only unmarried millennials on a cruise where most people are over 50,” Fehrenbacher said. “But after a few days of enjoying the drinks and the food, we started getting to know some other people.”
When the Diamond Princess arrived in Hong Kong, Fehrenbacher was alarmed to see that everyone on shore was wearing masks. A couple of days later his fever only increased his anxiety. Though it broke shortly afterwards, he developed a sore throat over the following days. He avoided leaving the ship when it made scheduled stops in Taiwan and Okinawa, worried that he wouldn’t be allowed back on board if he displayed any signs of illness.
At 6.30pm on February 3rd, as the ship was steaming back to Yokohama, the captain made a special announcement over the intercom. His voice was broadcast into every lounge and cabin: “Please be advised that we have been notified by the Hong Kong public-health authorities that a Hong Kong resident who travelled for five days on the Diamond Princess...disembarking in Hong Kong on January 25th, tested positive for coronavirus on February 1st, six days after leaving the vessel,” he said.
Passengers were told to expect some delays after they arrived in Yokohama, where Japanese health officials would screen each passenger before disembarking. In the meantime, anyone who had experienced any sign of illness during the cruise was instructed to report to the medical facility, which sat on the ship’s lowest deck. Medics would take their temperature and they would answer a health questionnaire.
Fehrenbacher was shocked – and convinced that he must have caught the virus. But he couldn’t decide whether to comply with the request. “One worry was that if I already had the virus, they’d quarantine me and I’d be unable to travel home,” he said. “My other worry was that if I didn’t have it already, I’d be walking into a small room filled with every coughing, feverish person on the ship.” He paced his cabin before confessing to his roommate that he was going to ignore the order. His friend was visibly upset. “He helped me realise that I had an ethical obligation to report myself,” said Fehrenbacher. “And maybe a legal obligation as well.”
So Fehrenbacher descended into the depths of the ship to squeeze into the packed waiting room, which held double the number of people it was designed for. Many passengers were hacking away, sneezing or visibly ill.
Shortly after 11pm, Japanese health officials dressed in cotton overalls began knocking on doors, selecting the people who they deemed most in need of testing for covid-19. It was 4.30am by the time they got to Fehrenbacher’s room. They questioned him about his symptoms and recent travel, asking, in particular, whether he had been to Wuhan. Then they headed off to the next room. Later they took a throat swab, telling Fehrenbacher he would have the results within six hours. In the first round of testing, they took swabs from 253 people.
When morning dawned on February 4th, the experience seemed like a dream to Fehrenbacher. The dining halls were full of passengers grazing at the buffet breakfast. Later people began drinking in the ship’s lounges. Throughout the day, guests of the Diamond Princess ate, chatted and enjoyed the on-board entertainment. The health officials continued making their rounds. At Club Fusion the band played on.
The party came to an abrupt halt on the evening of February 4th: “I’ve just received instructions from the Japanese quarantine inspectors,” the captain announced over the ship’s intercom, in a monotone that gave little reassurance to passengers. “At this time, all our guests must remain in their cabins and wait for further instructions.” Another announcement followed later on. The ship had been quarantined and passengers were confined to their cabins for at least the next 14 days. The corridors of the ship were soon flooded with people whose first instinct was to commiserate, face-to-face, with their neighbours. “Bummer!” was the judgment of one.
Fehrenbacher found that his mood turned on whatever he had last read online about coronavirus. When he didn’t hear from health officials by the time the six-hour deadline for his results had passed, he presumed his continued presence on board meant that he didn’t have the virus. But the more he read, the less certain he became about that. The outbreak on the ship had become international news and when Fehrenbacher watched a CNN report on February 7th saying that there were 41 new positive cases of covid-19 on board, he convinced himself that he was among them. He recorded a short video for his family, so that he could send it if he was taken away to the hospital without advance notice.
“If you’re seeing this video, I have tested positive for the coronavirus and am being taken to a Japanese hospital somewhere,” he said, visibly choking up. “I’m making this video just as a way of saying ‘hi’, saying, you know, ‘I love you’ to my family and friends, and just making this in advance in case I don’t have time to…in case.”
Later that day, when Fehrenbacher finally found out that he had tested negative, his despair transformed into elation. That delight was enhanced by copious amounts of alcohol: on February 9th Jan Swartz, chief executive of Princess Cruises, informed all passengers that, in addition to a full refund and a free cruise in future, for the duration of their quarantine they could order drinks at no charge. Fehrenbacher and his roommate sent for wine and beer.
For those who’d been able to afford rooms with balconies, having that outside space offered a respite from the monotony of washing laundry in the bathroom basin and the smell of days-old rubbish that began to accumulate in cabins as the crew struggled to manage the needs of their captive guests.
Fehrenbacher and his friends watched the sunset each day on their shared balcony and chatted to the neighbours, usually about how much luck they’d had placing drinks orders, which had been constantly backed up since becoming complimentary. The best method, passengers soon learned, was to scrawl an order on a piece of paper and leave it in the hallway with some cash peeking out underneath. The combination of free alcohol, and the feeling that they had broken bread with a killer and survived, led many other passengers to share Fehrenbacher’s feeling that quarantine was in some ways an extension of their holiday.
One sunny day passengers with cabins facing out to sea were drawn outdoors by the sound of Japanese pop music, which accompanied an impromptu performance by a gang of jet-skiers. For ten or 15 minutes they performed stunts, while passengers stood on their balconies, cheering them on, drinks in hand. When the music stopped and the jet-skiers departed, Fehrenbacher found himself desperate to prolong the moment. He and his American roommate started a Mexican wave. “Eventually we got it going down from one end of the ship to the other,” he said. “It felt so nice to see all these people connecting in the midst of this really difficult time.”
A week into quarantine, Fehrenbacher was feeling reassured. He’d received a letter from the American Centres for Disease Control telling him that, based on the latest available information, “remaining in your room on the ship is the safest option to minimise your risk of infection.” He also noticed that, for a few days in a row, the captain hadn’t mentioned any new infections among the passengers in his daily announcements over the intercom. By February 13th Fehrenbacher began to think that the quarantine might come to an early end. But two days later, as he was preparing to be interviewed by a Canadian news programme, he was shocked when he heard the introduction to the segment about the Diamond Princess.
“Did you just say that there are 67 new cases?” Fehrenbacher asked. “Is that what I heard?”
The news anchor told him this was indeed true. This meant that the total number of confirmed infections on board the ship had risen to 285. “Okay, uh, I had not been made aware of that,” he said. The captain, it turned out, had simply stopped informing passengers about new cases. (In a request for comment, Carnival Corporation said it did “everything possible to be open, honest and transparent, and to provide for the health and well- being of our guests and crew”.)
Fehrenbacher felt a return of his earlier dread. On the same day, the Diamond Princess briefly headed out to sea to run its engines. When it returned to port a few hours later, it docked in the opposite direction. Fehrenbacher’s balcony view of Mount Fuji and the open seas had been replaced by one of an ugly port overrun with ambulances and men dressed in hazmat suits.“That’s when it finally hit us that people were getting sick and dying,” he said. “That’s when we stopped drinking and started wearing our masks and taking things more seriously.”
On the inside of the brochure for the Diamond Princess, just past the promises of exploration and renewal, there is a page that lays out the hierarchy of the cabins in descending order: grand suite with balcony, suite with balcony, mini-suite with balcony, oceanview double with balcony, deluxe oceanview, oceanview double, interior double.
Aun Na Tan’s interior double was on Deck 10, one floor below the Baja boys. She slept on a single bunk beneath Kaitlyn, her 16-year-old daughter. On another bunk an arm’s length away, her husband Jeff Soh slept beneath Xander, their 19-year-old son. The entire cabin, which was windowless and without mobile-phone reception, measured 15 square metres. Nonetheless, as with all the other cabins, cruise staff always referred to it as a “stateroom”.
It had seemed like a tremendous bargain. For less than $1,000 per person, the family of four enjoyed two weeks at sea. They didn’t mind the cramped quarters – they did little other than sleep there. Kaitlyn spent much of her time at the youth club, while her parents exercised. At midday the family often met up for lunch. In the afternoon, Tan napped, her husband would go to an art auction and the kids would watch a film. After dinner, they’d usually go to a show together.
Quarantine necessitated a new routine. Breakfast buffets were replaced by fruit cups and yogurt. The mornings were now spent playing sudoku and board games. Gone was the magnificent choice of food: for lunch they had to pick between stir fry with chicken or stir fry with tofu.
Once the Wi-Fi connection had been boosted to handle its near constant use by the 3,000-plus people aboard, Tan’s husband was able to use his laptop to work remotely, in his job as a project manager for a bank in Australia. Tan spent the day rallying her children’s spirits with games, exercise and impromptu renditions of pop songs. “I think the kids were a little annoyed with my attempts to keep them optimistic,” she said.
They humoured their mother, transforming their cabin into a karaoke booth, cinema, gym and dance studio. They did sit-ups and press-ups in the tiny space available. Xander and Kaitlyn, both dancers, practised hip-hop moves. And they managed to stream the Oscars. Even the boxed meals didn’t really bother them that much. “We are not afraid of repetitive food,” Tan said. “We quite often have the same food over a few days since I cook in bulk so often at home.”
On February 7th crew members delivered masks, rubber gloves and instructions on how to keep a safe, “social distance” from other passengers. Tan and other passengers in “inside” cabins with no window or balcony had not tasted fresh air for nearly three days at that point. Now they were allowed to stroll along the ship’s main deck for 30 to 40 minutes each day, as long as they kept two arms’ lengths from other passengers.
Tan found complying with the instructions surprisingly difficult. She would doubt whether she’d touched a rail before or after she rubbed her eye. She wondered if people were veering too close to her and whether it would be rude to ask them to move away. Did it matter, she thought, that we’re walking into the wind with all those people in front of us?
Three days into the quarantine, Tan received a sobering phone call from another Australian on board, who had tested positive for coronavirus. Shaken by the news, she became strict about the family’s hygiene. They all washed their hands constantly and disinfected the cabin regularly. “We cleaned the trays our food came on and we washed and cleaned the raw fruit and vegetables,” she said. “We wiped down the outer containers as much as we could.” Other passengers had similar anxieties: one turned away from the door each time a meal was delivered, worrying that a blast of infected air might contaminate her room.
As quarantine dragged on, more passengers fell ill and were carted off to hospital. The remaining holidaymakers were trapped on board, obsessed with the possibility that the virus was spreading through the air vents. This theory gained greater traction after the captain began assuring passengers in his announcements that only clean air passed through the cabins. Many people had stopped trusting the cruise company by this point. (Even now, scientists are uncertain about the extent to which coronavirus is transmissible through air.)
Tan’s measures to decontaminate food deliveries would prove prescient. The first crew member to test positive for covid-19 was a food-service worker, who came down with a fever on February 2nd. Crew members shared one large dining hall and lived together in dormitories with bunk beds stacked three high. By the time the fever-ridden employee disembarked two days later, he’d infected others around him. Fifteen food-service workers had tested positive by February 9th, which may well have hastened the spread of the virus among passengers, since these people prepared, boxed up and delivered all meals.
Isolated in their cabins, with no consistent communication from the Japanese government or Princess Cruises, emotions ran high. “Either things were fantastic and it felt like an extension of my vacation, or it felt like the end of the world,” Fehrenbacher said. “There wasn’t a whole lot in between.” Each day, passengers learned through phone calls, text messages or news reports that friends they’d made on board had now been whisked away after testing positive. The virus was encroaching.
Kent Frasure, 42, and his wife Rebecca, 35, are experienced cruise-goers. The couple from Oregon have taken 11 cruises, ten of them aboard Princess vessels. They had seen enough, they reckoned, to know when things were going wrong at sea. Even after the captain announced that a Diamond Princess passenger had tested positive for covid-19, they didn’t think it was very serious.
Some years before that they’d been on another Princess cruise during a norovirus scare. “In that case the captain immediately implemented new protocols for meal service, and the crew gave passengers instructions on how to protect themselves,” Kent said. During that earlier cruise there had been a palpable change in mood as passengers busied themselves trying to avoid contamination. “This time none of that happened, so it didn’t seem like a big deal to me,” he said. The only difference Kent noticed was that passengers who went to quiz nights were asked to keep the pencils they’d been given to write down their answers, rather than handing them back at the end.
Once quarantine began, he and his wife were among the first group of passengers to be tested. Over the next few days they watched from the balcony of their suite as passengers with confirmed infections were hurried off to hospital. “There was a covered tunnel that prevented you from seeing how many people got off the ship,” said Kent, “but you knew what kind of a day it was going to be by counting the number of ambulances that arrived.”
They also joined a private Facebook group that quarantined passengers had created. Unfortunately, Kent said, it quickly filled up with “complaints and conspiracy theories”. The lack of consensus about the danger posed by covid-19, combined with poor communication from the Japanese authorities, fuelled wild speculation among the Facebook group’s most active posters. Some accused the Japanese government of lying, carrying out flawed tests or unreasonably holding passengers on board. When another guest tried to tamp down the “rumours and hysteria”, he was accused of being in the employ of the Japanese. Despite this, the Facebook group became the most reliable way to keep tabs on how many passengers had tested positive for covid-19, as many members posted their results there or reported that their neighbours had now been taken away.
On the morning of February 7th, Japanese officials arrived to tell Rebecca Frasure that she had tested positive. She was told to pack a bag quickly with everything she’d need for the next three days. Kent, who did not have the virus, had to stay behind. “We couldn’t believe it, because aside from a very mild sore throat, she didn’t have any symptoms,” Kent said. “But they said she’d only be gone three days, so we figured maybe it was just a precaution and not a big deal.”
Rebecca never became seriously ill, but the experience was unsettling. The food she was given at the hospital, including fish, rice and pickles for breakfast, was a far cry from the sushi and grilled meat she had previously enjoyed in Tokyo. She was anxious about being separated from her husband, and upset to learn soon after arriving that she would be there for at least 12 days, not the three that she had initially been promised. She struggled to communicate with the doctors and nurses, as she didn’t speak Japanese.
From the day they were separated, Kent waited alone in his cabin. The number of positive tests rose from 61 cases on the day his wife was taken to hospital, to 218 a week later. He used Facebook Messenger to keep in touch with Rebecca, swapping jokes and photos of their meals. Occasionally, in the midst of a comforting chat with his wife, Kent would receive abusive Facebook messages from strangers back in America. “Stay the fuck out of the US make a new life somewhere else because if you come back and spread it you’re selfish,” one man from Portland wrote. “Keep the innocent kids with years of life happy and safe corona free stay away.”
Kent found comfort in a WhatsApp group comprising about 20 people he had met during the quiz nights. They offered encouragement to people struggling with the isolation and banded together to find deliveries of fresh linen and towels, after the provision of such items fell by the wayside during the first week of quarantine.
By February 16th, four weeks after the first passengers had boarded the ship in Yokohama, the Diamond Princess warranted its own category in the World Health Organisation’s daily report on the outbreak of coronavirus. There were 355 confirmed cases on board, more than in any country apart from China, and more than in all those other countries put together.
Among the many infected passengers was Kaitlyn Soh, the 16-year-old daughter of Aun Na Tan. She had never shown any signs of illness except for a headache, which her parents assumed was due to dehydration caused by too many hours spent staring at her smartphone. Tan refused to be separated from her daughter, as the authorities wanted, and three days passed before they found a hospital that would allow the family to stay together, though in separate wards. The hospital had no Wi-Fi, so Tan sent handwritten notes to her daughter. Kaitlyn’s replies had to be photocopied, since nothing was allowed to leave the “red zone” where covid-19 patients were treated.
“My daughter is pretty tough and she always scoffs at me and her brother for being softies and crying at movies,” Tan said. “But she later told us that she cried most of that first night, separated from us.”
Because his quarantine timer was reset on the day his wife had tested positive, Kent Frasure was forced to remain on the ship longer than most other passengers. Ten days after his wife was taken to the hospital, he watched from his balcony as over 300 Americans and Canadians were evacuated. They were put on a bus, driven to a cargo plane and flown to America, where they were put into another 14-day period of quarantine.
Fehrenbacher spent this time at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California. He had another test for the virus. “The idea of ending up in an American hospital really worried me,” he said. “It would have ruined me financially.” Fortunately he received another negative result.
Kent Frasure was still marooned on the ship when he found out from a news reporter about the first death of a passenger. “It was so shocking and so sad to think that this person had gone on a vacation and the next thing you know they’re dead,” he said. “It just seemed so preventable.” In total, 14 passengers from the Diamond Princess eventually died from covid-19.
As ever more passengers finished their quarantine or were evacuated by their governments, the Diamond Princess turned into a ghost ship. The only people Kent now saw were members of the crew who glided by his room at mealtimes, sometimes forgetting that he was still on board. He was one of the last passengers to leave the ship, on February 22nd. He spent a new 14-day period of quarantine in a succession of Tokyo hotels; twice he was asked to leave when the management learned where he had been. When he visited Rebecca in hospital, he had to stand beneath the window of her room and speak to her using FaceTime. On March 4th, she was released. The couple remained in Tokyo for five more days. They had hoped to go to Tokyo Disneyland but by then it was closed to prevent the spread of the virus.
As the Diamond Princess emptied out, a very different but equally international gaggle of people gathered at its gangway. Most had come from Myanmar, Nepal and Turkey; a few were Japanese. They were brought in on buses each morning to clean the ship as it sat idly in Yokohama bay, a monument to the virus now sweeping across the world. Six days a week, for four weeks, they spent nine hours scrubbing, cleaning and disinfecting each of the ship’s cabins, and every bar, club, lounge, youth centre, steakhouse and dining room. They earned ¥10,000 a day (roughly $95). If they lived too far away to commute, they were put up in a nearby hotel. “The hotel room is a lot nicer than my own apartment,” one of them told me in March. “Sometimes it almost feels like I’m on vacation.” •