OPINION: Outbreak at sea, like a dystopian movie

MANILA (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - It seems straight out of a drama movie, reminiscent of the likes of “Voyage of the Damned” that tells the story of German Jews aboard the St. Louis bound for Havana to escape the Nazis during the outbreak of World War II. 

It seems straight out of a drama movie, reminiscent of the likes of “Voyage of the Damned” (which had Oscar nominations) that tells the story of German Jews aboard the St. Louis bound for Havana to escape the Nazis during the outbreak of World War II. Alas, no country would receive them. (They were not the same Jewish refugees that the Philippines took in.) So the ship had to return to Hitler’s Germany where the refugees, many of them highly talented, ended up in concentration camps or were gassed to death. Those who survived told harrowing tales.

This month, MS Westerdam became a cruise ship without a harbor, marooned at sea for two weeks. It was not allowed to dock anywhere in Asia, until Cambodian authorities allowed it to anchor. One of its passengers tested positive for COVID-19.

But real-life drama still unfolding every day is in the cruise ship Diamond Princess, presently docked in Yokohama, Japan. Someday, it could be mined for some movie script or other, considering that the COVID-19 outbreak among its passengers is the first of its kind on board, perhaps unprecedented in recorded maritime history, epidemiology, disease control, and whatever else.

The cruise ship, with 3,700 passengers and crew, docked in Japan early February. Although only one fell ill initially — a Chinese who disembarked in Hong Kong — his fellow passengers soon also fell ill one after another even while already quarantined inside the ship in Japan waters.

The Diamond Princess drama is one dystopian plot for the screen. I am not being facetious. Some movie a la “Outbreak” starring Dustin Hoffman or the TV docuseries “Pandemic” would be instructive.

Quarantined passengers have been recording their daily ordeals with their phone cameras. There is so much material. Not to forget the heroic medical workers on land, like those who raised the alarm in Wuhan (the epicenter) in China, and were made to suffer for it by their own government.

Let me digress. In this jet age, ships are no longer only for cargo, they are also for fun and entertainment. If you’ve been on a cruise, you’d realize when you step inside the ship that it is one floating luxury hotel with people of various nationalities and backgrounds.

It is like one barangay, if you may, especially when you see that the crew — chefs, cooks, engineers, entertainers, musicians, beauticians, etc.—are mostly Filipinos. Oh, and there could be a whodunit on the side. During the only cruise of my life (on the Mediterranean), there was a fellow passenger who fell into the sea (a suicide or was there a crime committed?). Years later, the incident was tackled on the Oprah show. A story, indeed.

Diamond Princess is British-owned, so Japanese authorities deserve profuse thanks for allowing it to dock and providing Japanese medical workers to care for the ailing crew and passengers, many of them Japanese, as well as those who remain quarantined in the ship.

Some governments are already repatriating their citizens, positive or not for COVID-19. I am concerned about the Filipino crew who tested positive (35 of the 538, as of Tuesday) and are in Japanese hospitals. The Filipinos in the ship are to be flown home soon and quarantined again.

Questions have been raised on whether it was wise to quarantine the passengers together inside the ship because, just the same, the virus continued to spread among them. But what better choice did health authorities have? The situation is unprecedented. The number of cases in the Diamond Princess is the biggest cluster outside China and next to Japan’s.

As of Wednesday morning, the reported death toll in China alone had jumped to 2,004 after a surge of 1,749 new cases. Almost 14,000 have recovered. Hubei alone has accounted for 70,548 cases.

Before the age of vaccines, during the bygone age of exploration and conquest, countless men died of diseases during sea voyages, their corpses consigned to the ocean depths. The ships brought diseases to immune-deficient natives. Today, this planet’s jet-setting citizens are vulnerable as ever to rogue viruses and mutant bacteria. Microscopic and unseen by the naked eye, they could be used for biological warfare.

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