The PRINCESS of the CRUISE
by Christopher Johnson
–A Hong Kong mother, trapped in a windowless cabin for 14 days, shines like a diamond on a contaminated ship in Japan
–“The diamond is a chunk of coal did really well under pressure,” wrote Yardley Wong and other passengers, echoing Captain Arma
–How knowledge and compassion beat fear of the unknown, and trust and faith overcame hate and suspicion.
She was trapped in their windowless room at 3 am, and the virus was surrounding them.
She was terrified of becoming another number in the toll sweeping from Asia across the world.
With crew standing in the hall like prison guards, she couldn’t run from an enemy she couldn’t see.
At least she could wash her hands in soap for 20 seconds and check temperatures every hour. She sprayed disinfectant on her clothing and shoes. She scrubbed her phone with an alcohol solution because “the phone is the most dirty place.” Recalling how SARS infected 329 and killed 42 in Hong Kong’s Amoy Gardens in 2003, she covered the toilet when flushing, in case SARS-CoV-2 was lurking in the plumbing.
But even her cleaning rituals couldn’t defend her mind from the ongoing invasion. Staring at the walls for three days and nights, she had to find a way to overcome her fears.
“This virus is real,” she wrote. It was like a terrorist group growing day by day. They used the hallways and ventilation systems to sneak around the ship. They used waiters to enter cabins via their masks, gloves, food, trays, towels, sheets, paper, puzzles or anything they could find. The devil was everywhere, and he could drive her crazy if she thought too much.
But she also knew another invisible force: God.
He would shelter her from harm. And if the demon virus should devour her, Jesus would take her to Heaven and defeat the devil on Judgment Day.
Jesus gave her the strength to watch over others, as He watched over her. His love was the fountain of her love for her husband and son sharing the bed with her, and her parents, aunt and uncle in nearby rooms. “God gives me an unbelievable strength to put some burden on my shoulders,” she wrote. “Now I understand the heavy burden of Jesus, patiently listening to people suffering through difficulties.”
The coughing and agony of the sick and elderly echoed down the hall and into her heart. All she could do was pray and trust in God’s mercy. “Life is so fragile,” she mused. “All the great memories seem to shatter when life is under threat.”
But it was God’s will, and in God she would find the way through 30 days and nights of quarantine hell.
It’s not clear when the novel coronavirus came aboard the Diamond Princess to infect more than 750 passengers and crew and kill at least 8 in the worst outbreak outside of Wuhan at that time.
Researchers know that the coronavirus was in Tokyo on January 18, infecting more than a dozen taxi drivers at a yakatabune riverboat party. The next day, China reported 198 cases, then 291 on Jan. 20. Super-spreaders were infecting clusters in China, Japan, Iran, South Korea, Italy and elsewhere.
Somehow, the virus jumped onto “Mr. Wu”, a retired teacher, age 80. Living in a small flat in a public housing estate in Kwai Chung, New Territories, he told SCMP that he crossed the border to Luohu district in Shenzhen in mid-January and waited an hour to collect online tickets to see relatives in his native Fujian province after the cruise. On January 17, he flew to Tokyo with his two daughters for sightseeing, and then boarded the Diamond Princess in Yokohama on Jan. 20. Enjoying their holiday, they spent time sweating in the ship’s hot-water onsen and sauna. “I would not soak in water on the ship if I was coughing then,” Wu said.
Two days later, they joined hundreds of passengers on buses to a shopping mall in Kagoshima. “I didn’t know if anyone else on the bus was infected. I couldn’t tell,” Wu said. Kagoshima’s tourism office later said the area recorded no COVID-19 cases.
The next day, Wu began coughing. “It wasn’t serious,” he said. Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases said two other passengers began coughing a few days before that, and later tested positive. They also took the bus tour in Kagoshima.
On Jan. 25, Wu and about 130 passengers disembarked at Kai Tak Terminal. Hong Kong’s government then closed some but not all border crossings and suspended flights and high-speed trains from Wuhan. At home, Wu’s wife, a former nurse, found his temperature was normal. But with a persistent cough, Wu took an ambulance to Caritas Medical Center. Feverish, he tested positive for COVID-19 on Feb. 1. They moved him to Princess Margaret Hospital. Dr. Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of communicable diseases at the Centre for Health Protection, said a chest x-ray showed shadows on his lungs.
As Hong Kong quarantined his wife, three relatives and three others, Wu watched from his hospital bed as the world increasingly blamed him as “Patient Zero”, the index patient whose infection would spread to more than 750 people and kill at least seven.
THE VIRAL INVASION
Hours after Wu left the ship Jan. 25, Yardley Wong and her family came on board to join about 360 others from Hong Kong. Wong, 43, a world traveler with degrees from universities in Canberra, London and Illinois, wanted to see Vietnam with her husband Carlos Enrique Soto, a Hong Kong University lecturer with degrees from California. Their son, age 6, dreamed of going to Tokyo to see kimonos and eat the “world’s longest french fries”. Wong had to talk her reluctant father, a retired businessman, into his first cruise. “We often travel by plane for work. But my son loves ships,” she told SCMP in a conversation with hundreds of messages. The cruise, she told them, will be the cheapest way for the family to spend the Lunar New Year holidays together.
They got a deal on inner “state rooms” without windows. No problem, she thought, since they planned to spend time on shore or in the ship’s swimming pool, onsen, sauna, theatre, clubs and eating areas.
Her father was right. Maybe the ship wasn’t such a safe place after all.
On Saturday Feb. 1, the monstrous vessel sailed from Taiwan into Naha port on Okinawa. Soaring overhead, US air force jets, protecting commercial airliners and supporting troops in the Middle East, didn’t detect the viral army coming ashore; neither did border officers checking temperatures, not swabbing throats. More than 2000 passengers took buses and taxis into a mini-Tokyo teeming with condos, restaurants, clubs and duty-free shops manned by staff from China, Vietnam and Nepal. At some point, the virus hopped aboard a female taxi driver in her 60s who would end up feverish and test positive two weeks later.
Wong’s husband was supposed to fly home from Naha that night. Their worried friends in Hong Kong sent them Whatsapp messages about the viral outbreak across China. Wong assured them they were wearing masks, washing hands and dining at uncrowded hours. Since Hong Kong schools were still closed, Soto decided to get back on the ship with his family for the relative safety of Japan. The virus followed them.
BIG WHITE SHIPS
After Wu tested positive, Hong Kong’s port authority says it told Princess Cruises on Feb. 1 to disinfect the ship. Somebody didn’t check emails. Princess Cruises’ chief doctor, Grant Tarling, then in California, told the New York Times that he saw a social media posting the next day, Feb. 2. With a subject line “confirmed coronavirus case”, he wrote a Hong Kong doctor, listing the patient’s name, hospital wing and companions. He didn’t order more urgent actions because the patient was already off the ship. He figured Japanese officials would trace his contacts and movements.
When captain Gennaro Arma from Sorrento, Italy docked the ship in Yokohama on Monday, Feb. 3, Japanese authorities told him to stay put. With Japanese military helicopters whirring overhead, Arma said he realized quarantine officials were now in charge of a ship he began commanding in 2018 after 20 years rising through the ranks at Princess Cruises. If his hands were tied, the virus was free to roam. The ship was now a shooting gallery, with the prey trapped on board, waiting for instructions.
Exhausted from typhoons and scandals, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was preparing to host Chinese President Xi Jinping in April and then the “Recovery Olympics” beginning July 24. To boost the economy amid a 10 percent consumption tax, Abe kept Japan’s doors open in January to a record number 920,000 Chinese tourists, many on direct flights from Wuhan. Entrants only had to fill out a health declaration card. Japan needed their spending to fund health care for seniors over 65, more than a quarter of Japan’s shrinking population. Japan’s health minister Katsunobu Kato, a trained economist and former finance ministry official, was overseeing budget cuts. As such, Japan’s health care system wasn’t ready to cope with 2666 passengers from 50 nations on a US-owned, British-flagged ship with 1045 crew mainly from Philippines, Indonesia, India, Ukraine and China.
While Japan turned away the Westerdam and other cruise ships, they couldn’t ignore the Diamond Princess with more than 1000 Japanese aboard. Foreign minister Toshimitsu Motegi later told the Diet that he asked foreign nations to share Japan’s burden. Sources told NHK that Abe, Kato and Motegi wanted the US air force at Yokota to evacuate foreigners. But governments were focussed on extracting citizens from Wuhan. Japan’s quarantine centers in Saitama and Chiba were occupied for at least two weeks. Thus the ship was a hot potato no nation wanted to touch.
THE FLOATING INCUBATOR
While officials dithered, passengers enjoyed group entertainment on deck. They hoped to disembark soon. But around 11 pm on Feb. 3, officials boarded the ship and ordered everyone to their cabins until further notice.
The next day, Japanese medics, including 10 who would become infected, went door to door taking temperatures. They found 120 people with fever, cough or other symptoms, and another 153 in close contact with them.
Right then, officials could have set up triage on the vast tarmac of Daikoku Pier to separate sick from healthy. They could have transported the 273 to military barracks or isolation units while removing 3438 others from the “floating incubator”. They could have ordered construction crews, who often erect work camps on short notice, to build temporary shelters. They could have persuaded foreign nations to evacuate their citizens while they were still healthy. They could have sent Japanese to quarantine at home or in government or military lodgings. They even could have used uninhabited islands or some of the millions of empty “akiya” homes across Japan. Anywhere was safer than a contaminated ship.
Instead, Japan and Princess Cruises were hoping 3711 people in close quarters wouldn’t infect each other.
On Feb. 4, passengers mingled on decks, lined up for buffets, and shared ladles, tables and condiments. While they ate, the parasites feasted on them. The viral army also advanced via handrails, elevators, stairways and doorknobs; they snuck into rooms on contaminated skin, clothing, food and other objects. They, not Japan, were de facto taking over the ship.
Finally, on Feb. 5, the ministry of health ordered a quarantine under a 1951 Act, taking mobility rights away from 3711 people. Over the intercom, captain Arma told passengers to return to their rooms immediately and remain in isolation for the next 14 days. He said that 10 of 31 passengers had tested positive.
Wong called it a “nightmare”. Foreigners on TV interviews called it a “floating prison”. Japanese demanded to go home.
But the rigid bureaucracy continued their quarantine plan, giving the virus 14 more days to attack the ship.
(2850 to EVACUATION)
Before the cruise, she mainly used her @Yardley_Wong Twitter account to sell Scandinavian products online. In December 2018, she noted how startup founders “face extreme conditions and scarce resources like Moses leading the people to the promise land. No matter how difficult it is, God always bring us through.”
It got one like.
In 2019, she mostly retweeted Southern Baptist minister Richard Blackaby. “The amazing thing about prayer is that it can instantly impact events on the other side of the world,” he tweeted. “It finds its target every time, and it continues to work long after the person stops praying.”
Last April, Wong retweeted a prophesy from ChristianMomentum. “You’re not always going to be invisible. The God who never sleeps is directing your footsteps. You’re going to be promoted to a place of leadership. Your time is coming. And when it does, the blind will see #God had chosen you all along.”
Wong’s time began Feb. 5, Day One of the quarantine, with her first #DiamondPrincess tweet: “Shocked and scared. Have faith in the crews and captain.” It got 164 likes, her most ever. In Wong, hundreds of parents found a kindred spirit in a social media world of promoters and haters. She wasn’t selling hygiene products when she wrote about sanitizing their room. She was tweeting for catharsis. She wrote about hunger (“Food please food come food”), the need for a humidifier and medications, and dealing with a bored son lacking room to run. “Ipad is the best solution to keep a 6-year old busy,” she wrote. “Tried to sleep but having a hard time, knowing that there is more test result come out tomorrow. Fear and unknown really got me.” She had a poetic side too. She posted a pic of the door that she couldn’t open, saying: “So much wondering through this door.”
Her twitter account, for lack of better term, became contagious; she tweeted 3000 times and gained 4000 followers. She was the ordeal’s most sympathetic character: a mother-with-child pieta, imprisoned within the bulwark of the hulking ship. If her son could survive this, he might become a doctor and save the world from diseases.
HER OWN GRAND SLAM
By Feb. 6, reporters and chase producers were prowling social media for videos and passengers to interview. They bombarded the facebook account of David Abel, a Trump supporter who told them to piss off — except for British media. Other passengers formed a private Facebook group to keep out the prying press. This fostered a bunker mentality; ‘only we really know what’s happening on the ship’. Only passengers — not the outside world — knew how much they were supporting each other or plotting to get out.
But Wong, at first, welcomed the attention. “Dear media friends, I know you are reaching out! Thank you for your kindness and concern.” She acted like an imbedded reporter relaying the sentiments of stranded passengers. “I am getting worried and afraid,” she wrote after 20 of 71 tested positive. “Can’t sleep. So much in my mind. Thinking about life, family and friends. It’s like a motion picture running in my head. Worry coming up high! Getting so emotional. Struggling if I can get fresh air or not. I want to cry.”
Fellow passenger Richard Bowes told her to call him. Her followers sent videos of koalas, kangaroos, puppies and baby elephant seals. “Hang in there,” they told her. “Praying for you.” “Virtual hugs”. “If you feel like crying, do cry. Sometimes crying helps to break the stress.” “Your faith is going to carry you through this.”
Wong, in turn, preached to them. “The ship has already followed every measure from the authority. So we all need to have faith in this. There is no other option. All we can do is pray.”
But even prayers couldn’t chase away their fears. Her followers wondered how the virus was spreading. In the water? The food? Door knobs and rails? The plumbing? The air ventilation system? Wong tried to calm them. “It’s more about human contact and touching things,” she said. “I don’t worry. I can’t get out anyway. Try not to think too much. It makes everyone crazy.”
Barely able to stretch her legs, her thoughts turned to tai-chi and tennis. She thought about China’s Wang Qiang losing to Serena Williams 6-1, 6-0 at the US Open, then rising up to beat her at the Australian Open. Wong loved Wang’s “power of positivity” and Serena’s confidence to overcome anything. Wong would need that in her own fortnight on the ship.
On Day 3 Feb. 7, Japan finally let her outside. She opened her door, walked down the carpeted hall, up the stairs and into the blinding light on deck. “So nice to breath fresh air,” she wrote. For her son, it was “the best day of his life.” Her family made a funny dance video that got 692 likes. She was “going viral” now, in the digital not epidemiological sense.
She gazed at the Yokohama skyline and the distant outline of Mt. Fuji. “Would love to go there,” she sighed. “Unfortunately I don’t think the Japanese government would allow us to continue our stay.” But after days in darkness, the sun helped her see the bright side. “We are lucky because none of us have the virus yet.”
During their daily “deck-xercise”, her family talked about hygiene and conquering mental demons. Survival depends on ritual, she said, especially the mental ones. “We have to stay busy somehow,” Wong said. “Attitude makes the difference. I try to stay positive.”
想定外 (sotei-gai) “OUTSIDE IMAGINATION”
It was hard to stay positive after news of 41 more infections, bringing the total to 61 out of the 120 with symptoms and 153 in close contact. Distressed Japanese hung a banner out their balcony citing a “serious lack of medicine, lack of information.” In a handwritten letter, elderly passenger Tadashi Chida, whose wife was desperate for medication, told the health ministry: “The ship is out of control. An outbreak is happening. We have no road maps.”
Japanese couldn’t help recalling the mismanagement of previous disasters. They remembered officials telling them the 1995 Kobe earthquake death toll was 12, when 5500 were in fact dead. They recalled officials on March 11, 2011 telling people to go to low-lying earthquake shelters instead of nearby hills, and then warning them 3-meter high tsunamis were coming, when in fact 20,000 would drown in 15-meter high waves. People in Japan couldn’t forget the government hiding a nuclear meltdown for weeks, even as foreigners fled Japan, diplomats evacuated to Osaka, and TV showed army helicopters spraying water at smouldering nuclear fuel rods threatening life as we know it.
Even after Kiyoshi Kurokawa, chairman of the Diet investigation into the 2011 Fukushima disaster, blamed inertia and “the collective mindset” of bureaucrats putting their own interests ahead of public safety, Japan’s officialdom always evaded responsibility by claiming events were 想定外 (sote-igai) “outside imagination”. These same bureaucrats and politicians were now keeping Diamond Princess passengers in the dark, testing them in small batches, denying them medicine and leaking out information drip by excruciating drip.
HANG IN THERE DIAMOND PRINCESS
At night, dark clouds of anxiety went around the ship along with the virus. Her mother, depressed, called her after midnight. A couple they met on board tested positive. Another passenger became seriously ill. A British man, 58, got infected on his honeymoon. “Pray for them,” she said.
To stay busy, Wong volunteered to help confused elderly passengers who couldn’t understand English or Japanese. She translated the captain’s announcements into Cantonese for them, and exchanged messages over patchy wifi with their relatives in Hong Kong and Canada. “They are very panicked and very scared,” she told SCMP. As medics took away infected passengers, the Hongkongers wanted to take over their rooms to get better air. But Wong told them the overstretched crew didn’t have time to sanitize them.
Socializing on deck, Wong found out that Japan would separate an infected man, 80, from his wife of 60 years. If the virus didn’t get them, suicide would. “When the couple is separated, oh gosh, it feels like the end of the world,” she said. Her greatest fear was that a positive test for COVID-19 would take one of her parents away from the other.
RUMORS AND NEWS
Craving information, passengers took turns on deck counting ambulances to figure out the true infection count. A rumor went around that authorities would reset the quarantine clock an additional 14 days after each positive test. “No please no,” Wong wrote Feb. 8.
The emotional roller-coaster of news and rumors disrupted their rhythm and kept everyone on edge. Wong got a buzz appearing live on Chinese state network CGTN, but then slammed “the media” for speculating about the crew spreading the virus through food deliveries. A debate erupted over conflicting Chinese media reports that the virus was “airborne” and could spread through the vents. “Everyone please take care!” she hollered. But when her uncle freaked out, she composed herself. “Need to calm him down,” she wrote.
Even the captain’s voice sounded weary as he gave them permission to hand-wash their clothing.
As Wong was “starting to lose sense of time”, followers sent her prayers and wishes online. Japanese high school students in sailor suits sent a video of encouragement. Princess Cruises sent them a Happy Anniversary card. “While anxiety is coming back, this reminds me why I’m on board,” she wrote. “I am going to pray intensely for all passengers onboard from now until we release.”
Distressed, she couldn’t fall asleep until a photo of her son comforting her got 396 likes.
On Day 5, she saw an influx of doctors, nurses and Japanese officials promising medications for 500 passengers. She prayed they would deliver pills for her father’s high blood pressure.
To calm her nerves, she focussed on deck time. “We get ready 30 minutes before we get on deck. We don’t want to lose any minutes.” She said she wanted to become a reporter because “you can get closer” to people. “I was so nervous because I never did any social media before,” she told her growing audience. “I needed to figure out something to do with myself for these 14 days so I can be strong for my family. It’s like magic talking to you guys.”
The praise poured in. “You are helping people around world understand situation. Your positive attitude is wonderful,” said one. “Amazed at how positive you are being!” said another.
But her images of crew and passengers walking, stretching or running past her showed the lack of real quarantine on the ship. Outsiders, including people in Yokohama, worried about seeing her husband hugging her mother, a warm gesture that could spread love as well as disease.
“Whatever happened to the one meter rule?” asked her new friend “Satoshi Morikawa”.
“There is. But after all these days of confinement, once we get on deck, people just not focus on that,” Wong replied. “Plus we all wear masks. Human being needs connection. It’s easy to say until you experience the crisis.”
Her videos and photos also showed the crew working day and night. They shared meals, cooked and delivered food to 1500 state rooms, and carried the luggage of infected passengers. They were the most exposed, least isolated, and most forgotten by the media.
Binay Kumar Sarkar, alongside crew members in masks and uniforms, posted a video to Facebook begging India to rescue them from the ship. “We are extremely scared at this point in time,” he said. “Our request is to segregate the crew members from the infected. None of us have been checked. Only people who are recording temperatures higher than 37.5 degree Celsius are being checked.”
STAY STRONG, YARDLEY WONG
While the crew worked, bored passengers passed the time reading books, doing sudoku, binging on movies or posting photos of food. Kent Frasure from Oregon, USA did time-lapse photography of ships and clouds moving in Tokyo bay — something he couldn’t do.
Wong’s husband lay in bed studying medical data and watching re-runs of The Love Boat. Their son, with time to develop creativity, drew an impressive picture of the Diamond Princess. Wong posted it on Twitter, and the Japan Times put it on their front page.
Wong had already seen the movie “Contagion” pre-cruise. “The real coronavirus is not as scary as the one in the movie,” she told SCMP. With time on her hands, she preached to her followers. “We may be bored in the room, but health is more important right now,” she tweeted. “After some emotional breakdown, I find my peace from you all. Thank you all for the kindness. Your tweets give me strength. LOVE U x3000.”
New test results on Day 6 shook them from their slumber: 65 more tested positive, for a new total of 130. The Diamond Princess now had the highest infection count outside of China. The World Health Organization gave the ship its own category separate from any country.
Wong called for strength and unity. “I need to cry to get off the anxiety,” she tweeted. “I feel so sad to see this today. The virus won’t be selective. They kill anyone regardless. Can we love each other to make the world a better place? On this boat, we have more than 50 nationalities. All together we stay strong, we work as a team and combat the virus.”
Responding to her call, followers such as “Morikawa” organized relief deliveries. A friend sent her Cup of Noodles and a physicist in Okinawa sent a cool toy for her son. It was a lifeline to souls running on fumes.
FAITH OVER TRUTH
With 38 more cases on Day 7, Wong posted a photo of her mother’s eye infection from too much rubbing at night. Wong also couldn’t stop blinking, touching her face or rubbing her itchy eyes. Was this a symptom of COVID-19 or mental illness, she wondered.
Their eye problems miraculously disappeared when they saw a handsome doctor on Deck 4.
But even he couldn’t relieve their anxiety. Whenever someone tested positive, they feared they’d be next.
A follower “Terry Jones” told her what many off the ship were thinking. “Truth is Japan is sacrificing that ship to save Japan, as they couldn’t handle 3700 infected people flooding their hospitals. It would devastate them. Unfortunate situation, that ship will make everyone sick.”
Wong didn’t want to hear it. She was in the middle of it. She was sick of dealing with sickness, real or imagined.
HOPE over FEAR
The half-way point, Feb. 12, was all about staying focussed on the end point, Feb. 19. Walking through her “tunnel for freedom”, she went on deck to gaze at the “normal life” of a Yokohama freeway bridge awaiting her. But another tunnel — a blue enclosure connecting the ship to an ambulance — led infected people to hospitals across Japan.
She focussed on the bridge, not the ambulance. “Don’t question authority because I’m sure they are trying their best. It’s such a very very unique situation,” she said in her video. “I need to give my applause to Japanese authorities who are trying their best. They are very very careful.”
She also praised the captain and crew. “Thank you captain! Take some rest, we will be strong for you also!” she wrote. “Last night when I prayed for everybody, and I thank you all for praying for us, I decided to stay strong. I’m not afraid anymore. We can be strong as long as we choose to fight for it.”
The good karma came back her way. A Japan Times editor put her son’s drawing on the front page and later sent him a copy of the newspaper. “I can’t believe it,” he screamed.
The vibe of love and support went around the ship on Feb. 12 and 13. The crew gave them Nature Made multiple vitamins and a door note saying “We can do it!” As dinner came late, Wong lamented the burden of the crew, who were also getting infected. “While we enjoy our freedom (on deck), crew quarantined clean up our mess,” she wrote. “Pray for their strength.”
On Valentine’s Day, the crew brought desserts. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” said captain Arma, quoting the Bible. Wong praised him. She perfumed herself and got dressed up “for my boys”. She took a mirror selfie of her lipstick and warm eyes. “A moment that didn’t feel like I was in quarantine,” she mused. Sharing a bottle of wine with her husband, she didn’t tweet that night.
But the next day, Day 10, hungover passengers were going stir crazy about a rumor that Japan was going to send them to the site of the 2011 nuclear meltdown. Wong sent me a link at 2:44 am. In fact, the NHK report in Japanese said the health ministry sent two patients to a hospital in Fukushima prefecture, far from the ruined reactors.
EVACUATION (1900 words to Victory)
Initially, the US Center for Disease Control told passengers to “shelter in place” because there was “no evidence” of airborne spread of the virus. But passenger Arnold Hopland, an American doctor, was livid. For years, he had been warning the Bush and Obama administrations to plan for pandemics like the 1918 Spanish Flu, killing an estimated 20 million worldwide. He told Politico.com that the ship was a petri dish. “There is no quarantine. It’s just a pack of people. The crew is scared to death.”
His longtime friend Phil Roe, a Tennessee republican, put him on a conference call with health officials stateside. Hopman told them the crew, working elbow to elbow, weren’t trained medics able to enforce Japan’s quarantine orders, and some passengers weren’t wearing masks on deck. Roe agreed that Americans shouldn’t be allowed home on commercial flights. “It’s the second-biggest concentration of coronavirus outside of Wuhan,” Roe said. “There’s nobody in the world better at this than we are, at evacuating people.”
The US State Department now acted with urgency, offering to airlift more than 350 Americans. But there was a catch: evacuees would have to quarantine 14 more days at US bases in California or Texas. Canada, Australia and Hong Kong marched in lock step, requiring 14 more days isolation in government centers.
The shockwave reverberated through the ship. “It will be insane, another 14 days!” Wong said at 3:01 am. “My son will go crazy. Old people just can’t handle it. My uncle is going nuts. It’s also a nightmare for my father.”
Wong, who grew up in Australia before returning to Hong Kong for work, had two passports and two minds about where to go. Australian diplomats, following her on Twitter, sent five emails asking if she would join their mercy flight. But she worried about sitting on a plane 14 hours with contagious passengers. “You don’t know who is infected,” she said. “Half the cases are not showing symptoms.”
She wanted to self-quarantine in her Kowloon townhouse in Hong Kong. She offered to wear a tracking device like suspects on bail. “Now most people in Hong Kong are working at home anyway.”
But governments, after rescuing citizens from Wuhan, were concerned about super-spreaders. Statistics showed the cruise ship’s rate of infection was higher than Hubei province. As one online commenter put it, the ship was “Wuhan-by-the-Sea”, not the Love Boat on Fantasy Island.
“I need to calm down to see what happens next,” Wong said at 3:48 am. She saw two options: fly to Hong Kong and stay two more weeks in a government quarantine center or a hospital with staff on strike; or stay on the ship, follow Japan’s plan, then take her son to Tokyo. “Just thinking about another 14 days is really killing me,” she said at 4.06 am. “I feel sorry for my husband. He could have disembarked in Okinawa Feb. 1. But he ended up coming with us. I can’t imagine being here without him. He said he can’t imagine being away from us for a month.”
The infection toll rose 67 more. She thanked God for the health of her family, and fell asleep.
On Sunday Feb. 16, Americans debated whether to join the US rescue flight that night. Dr. Hopland couldn’t join the evacuation he called for. Their room steward tested positive, as did his wife Jeanie. He opted to stay in Japan with her. Others were desperate to go home. American novelist Gay Courter, 75, who once set a murder mystery on a cruise, agreed to fly back into US quarantine instead of becoming a “public health menace”.
But Wong and others looked up to Matthew Smith, a maverick American who ran a family law firm in Sacramento, California with his wife Katherine Codekas. As Princess Cruises promised to refund his luxury suite, Smith drank wine, posted photos of gourmet meals and enjoyed the views of Tokyo Bay, all whilst slamming US bureaucrats. For distressed people in windowless cabins, Smith offered hope, and later, an escape route.
Smith became the unofficial leader of a passenger mutiny, not against the captain nor Princess Cruises (which Smith and Wong praised), but against the governments trying to rescue them. Smith’s combative mentality — ‘I’m on the ship, so I know more about it than you’ — infected Wong’s thinking. She admired his bravado TV appearances as the man who wouldn’t be saved.
Like Smith, she ignored the rising infection counts, and tried to convince her family that the ship was safer than flights or quarantine centers. “Once we get tested negative, we will break free,” she said. Plus her son wanted to see Tokyo. “He’s crying this morning, because he thinks he can’t see Japan. He put all of his hopes on this.” He stopped crying when she let him play video games. “Roblox saved the day.” This time, a parent was glad that a child was easily distracted.
FEAR OF OTHERS
Later that day, Japan announced a new total of 355 confirmed cases, with more tests to come. Smith and Wong remained calm; they wouldn’t be scared into leaving. But the new results showed that 38 out of 76 infected had no symptoms. This meant that seemingly healthy people could potentially kill you. Suddenly, passengers were afraid to endure a plane with the same people who, before the quarantine, shared a swimming pool, onsen, sauna and buffet. This fear of the unknown — and the other — somehow sweetened the cruel confinement of the contaminated ship. Smith said he was safer in his luxury cabin, which he never left, than on a plane with compatriots who didn’t follow quarantine procedures. Wong agreed. “At least we have fresh air inside the cabin. On the plane is not.”
Hong Kong dentist Alan Lam, living on snacks mailed by friends, waited patiently in his room for the ordeal to end. But many Hong Kong elders, who saw medics take away their companions, couldn’t bear it anymore. They took it out on Wong, screaming at her. “I become a sand bag for elderly to release stress,” she tweeted. “No worries. I can handle it. Need a lot of compassion for them.”
Another Hong Kong lady yelled at Wong for 20 minutes. She wanted medics to test her and let her off the ship. They tested her friends, all over age 70, but not her, age 69, because a rule is a rule. She feared her friends would leave her alone. “The endless waiting and unknown is really getting to her mentally,” Wong told me at 1 am. “Oh gosh, I feel her pain. She really keeps screaming and yelling. I said to her ‘calm down’. But if yelling is working for her, then better to keep yelling at me.”
People who lost track of time now had to make urgent decisions. After a flurry of exchanges on a Whatsapp group, Wong said about 100 Hongkongers vowed to join the mutiny and refuse the government charter back to quarantine in Hong Kong. But her husband, studying medical data, revised his infection predictions upward. He wanted off the ship, pronto.
Though in the same bed, they argued on Twitter. “Thank you for the rationale but as a mother, I need to ensure absolute protection of my child,” she tweeted to the man lying next to her. “My dad has pneumonia before and my mom has pre-condition. So they are high risk. Plus no elderly can take extra 14 days of quarantine.”
She then tweeted with Smith. “I feel ya. I will not get on the charter without knowing all passengers tested.”
With tensions rising, she put faith in reason. “Knowledge calm minds. Emotions easily get the best of us,” she reminded her followers. “A diamond is a chunk of coal did really well under pressure.”
TOKYO HERE WE COME
As Americans prepared to evacuate, Princess Cruises sent out a statement detailing Japan’s official disembarkation process. It reaffirmed Smith and Wong’s faith in Japan.
“Tokyo, here we come!” tweeted Smith.
“Best thing I ever read since 12 days ago! Thank you Lord!” tweeted Wong. “I’m so excited! And I can’t deny it! I know I know I know I like it! Woo hoo!” she sang out. “To celebrate the victory, I am going to start clean up the toilet.”
Smith mocked the “hazmat astronauts” coming to take him away, and he told them “no thank you”. From his balcony, he counted 11 coaches lined up to “save” the Americans. “We had an announcement telling those who are leaving to please remain in their cabins because they will be escorted off from there,” he tweeted. “Which likely means there were Americans who did not read the departure instructions and who were found wandering around the public areas of the ship. Par for the course. #IAintGettinOnABusOrAPlaneWithThesePeople.”
“Oh gosh I love your hashtag,” gushed Wong. “Can’t wait for Japanese whisky! You have to try.”
Someone asked if alcohol could kill the virus. “That’s my plan,” she said. “If I could put my foot on land, I will fulfill my promise to my son and eat ramen and longest french fries in Tokyo.”
AN EXPERT ON BOARD
While passengers were desperate to get off the ship, Kobe University Hospital professor and infectious diseases expert Dr. Kentaro Iwata was trying to get on it to use his experience working with Ebola in Africa and SARS in China. After initial hurdles, he managed to get aboard with a disaster response team. He sensed the virus lurking around him. “I was so scared,” he said. “There was no way to tell where the virus is.” He noted a lack of division into red zone contaminated and green zone safe areas. He saw feverish people wandering among medics without protection. He saw a nurse who had given up, figuring she would get infected anyway. It was “completely chaotic,” he said. Bureaucrats, not disease control experts, were in charge. Exiting the ship around 5 pm, he went to a hotel where he promised “soft isolation” for 14 days because “I’m scared of spreading this disease to others.”
His videos in Japanese and English were viewed more than a million times before he removed them a day later. Finally, a Japanese expert was speaking out against the failed quarantine. “Everything in Japan happens in a dark zone,” he said. “That’s not scientific decision making.” The next morning, Dr. Iwata told reporters that Japan was making a big mistake releasing 900 passengers over three days. “We might release people who might have infections. I don’t care about the test results,” he said, citing flawed testing procedures. “You have to watch people for next 14 days regardless of test results.” He urged Japan to follow the US, Canada, Hong Kong and others imposing two more weeks quarantine “ideally in an isolated environment because risk of secondary transmission is real.”
This shifted the spotlight onto passengers now going free to melt into the crowds of greater Tokyo. While workers wore hazmat suits, unprotected journalists mobbed the first of the 443 passengers released Feb. 19. Some TV crews followed them home. The passengers, relieved to roam on dry land, had no idea that a paranoid public would blame them and the government for spreading the disease by moving the viral “petri dish” from the ship to the nation’s overcrowded transportation system.
Test results for Wong, Soto and child were negative. Out of 3000 on board, they left with the first group off the ship. Wong posted a farewell photo of her tiny room. “This place gave us joy and memory. A bittersweet moment that brings tears in our eyes. We thank all who saved us with deep gratitude. It is not a goodbye. Reunion is awaiting us.”
She filmed her first steps on the tarmac. “Woo ooh. We’re leaving. We’re leaving now. Ahh, fresh air,” she said, breathless. “Thank you. Bye Diamond Princess, we’re gonna miss you. Ahh. Hello world. Ahh.”
The DP’s care team manager “M” hugged and comforted her “with no fear and judgement. I thank her for treating us with dignity,” Wong tweeted. “Carnival is the best and I am so touched when the CEO cheered us.”
After posting a photo on the bus from Yokohama port, they somehow traveled 43 kilometers to Tokyo’s bustling Shinjuku ward. She posted photos of a shop, pedestrians walking between skyscrapers, and a restaurant where she ate noodles and drank beer to release stress. She looked forward to her first sleep off the ship in four weeks. But she was stunned to see Twitter turning against her. Like a viral army, an invisible force was ganging up on her, accusing her of threatening public health.
“You are spreading the disease,” wrote @gsgreene.
“Hatred and racism is a disease,” replied Wong.
In dozens of online battles, she explained that she was following instructions from Princess Cruises and Japanese “virus experts”. “Is it a crime to feel living again?” Wong said. “Nobody knows anything about the ship but 3700 and the front line. We are the living witnesses of this epic crisis. Nobody else.”
She called critics “confused and irrational”. She also had God on her side. “I am peaceful and God is my judge. If anyone wants to leave #hatespeech on my tweet, please save it. It will not change my mind to make this world a better place to love regardless. Everyone can think anything. I don’t live for anyone but for God.”
After bitter exchanges, Wong calmed down. “I am having post quarantine anxiety. I need to detox,” she wrote. “Dear all, I have to disappear for few days. Will be back.”
GET THEM OFF NOW!
Though she was in a hotel 40 kilometers from the ship, she kept waking up to hear the captain’s announcements.
On Day 2 of “Freedom”, Feb. 20, her husband’s account @quarantinedond1 showed a photo of Japan’s new instructions for another round of freed passengers, telling them to “stay home unless absolutely necessary”. Wong’s photos showed her isolating inside their hotel. “If I only take one step out of the hotel for a few hours, people will go nuts and criticize harshly without compassion.”
Since they no longer had a room on the ship, Wong spent another night in Tokyo waiting for the release of her parents, aunt and uncle. “We came together. We leave together,” she repeated.
Finally on Feb. 21, the family of seven boarded the government’s second charter flight with at least four passengers who would test positive upon arrival in Hong Kong, thus casting suspicion on Japan’s testing. At least 10 out of about 200 repatriated Hongkongers would test positive in Hong Kong quarantine. More than 70 Hongkongers remained in Japanese hospitals, where two passengers with Hong Kong residency passed into the afterlife.
TOKYO DINING TOUR
Upon release, the mutinous California lawyers checked into a Tokyo hotel and told the staff where they had been. Smith said hotel “ninjas” gave them masks and left food outside their door. He reported his temperature daily to the US Center for Disease Control. Feeling fine, they went sightseeing. He posted photos of Tokyo Tower and a dining tour of Japanese, Italian, Vietnamese and other eateries. Wong and many of his 15,000 followers cheered him.
But the Twitter critics who attacked Wong now blasted Smith, calling him an “Ugly American” possibly spreading the coronavirus around Tokyo. “I’m not infected. What are you spreading?” Smith retorted. “Ignorance must really suck. We are not under quarantine.”
Smith insisted he made the right move refusing to fly “coronavirus class” with “hazmat astronauts” on the US government’s converted cargo plane with at least 14 infected passengers. Barred from entering the US for at least two weeks, Smith was now stuck in a country where Japanese officials canceled classes, concerts and sporting events for more than four weeks. “I have more chance of catching something from people around me than they have of catching anything from me,” Smith said, reminding critics that freed passengers had been tested more than anyone.
Asked if he’ll cruise again, he said: “Yes. What are the odds of us encountering anything close to this again?”
Under pressure from opposition lawmakers, the health ministry called 800 released Japanese passengers daily. Health minister Kato said at least 45 reported fevers, and at least 23 others weren’t properly tested. Overseas, health officials reported that at least 42 Americans, 10 Hongkongers, seven Australians, four Britons and one Israeli tested positive after Japan put them on repatriation flights home.
One of the first casualties, an 84-year old Japanese woman, spent a week on board after developing a fever and diarrhea on the first day of quarantine. Anti-retrovirals for HIV also failed to save a Japanese man, 87, who became feverish on board Feb. 10 before dying ten days later.
Health ministry officials said these deaths “proved” most infections occurred before the quarantine, with Feb. 7 marking a “peak onset of fevers”. Dr. Norio Ohmagari, the government’s director of disease control, also noted cases emerging Feb. 15-17. “I admit that isolation policy was not perfect. Ship was not designed for hospital. Ship was a ship,” he said. “We suspected some of the cruise staff may have already been infected. But they had to operate the cruise ship itself. They had to deliver the meals. So that may have caused some close contact.”
Dr. Shigeru Omi, another government adviser, praised the crew for their sacrifices. “On human rights, of course we sympathize. But you know, as long as the passengers are still there, they have to provide the service.”
Princess Cruises later said at least 150 crew members were infected.
As the Philippines and other nations repatriated crew members, Japan finally sent everyone off the ship to quarantine in a tax department complex in Saitama north of Tokyo. Captain Arma was the last to leave the ship. Princess Cruises called him “a hero in our eyes”. Passengers hailed him as well. “You are always my hero,” tweeted Wong.
HEROES GO HOME
After 20 days in hospital, Mr. Wu went home. He said COVID-19 only felt like a brief cold; his blood tests and X-rays were good. “I cannot accept people calling me the source,” he told SCMP. “If I was patient zero, how come my daughters who dined with me on the ship every day and my wife living with me in Hong Kong, have not contracted the virus?” He also noted that he wasn’t the only passenger who visited mainland China before the cruise.
Hong Kong experts agreed. “The timing doesn’t support that he was the first case, as his symptoms’ onset was January 23,” said Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, a Chinese University expert on respiratory medicine. Dr. Joseph Tsang Kay-yan agreed. “I think it is very likely the Hong Kong man got infected from others such as on the bus because there were two confirmed cases on the cruise who developed symptoms before him and his family tested negative.”
After everybody was off the ship, the US Center for Disease Control issued their report, citing Japan’s health ministry. It confirmed that Mr. Wu wasn’t the first infected passenger. Another passenger, not named, showed symptoms on Jan. 22 and stayed on board 11 more days to Yokohama. The virus spread to a cook who reported a fever Feb. 2, tested positive and was taken off the ship on Feb. 4 in Yokohama. A few days later, at least 15 food service workers, staying in cabins on deck 3, tested positive. The virus thus spread from the crew to the passengers, the report said.
Asked if he would cruise again, Wu said no. “I’m scared”.
But Wong felt more courageous than ever. Her family of seven were safely back in Hong Kong. She said the government’s quarantine apartments in Fo Tan were better than expected, even if the food was bland.
“I am so grateful that I have parents, families, passengers on board and Christians in this crisis. Most of all my husband and son for their understanding and encouragement to stand for humanity,” she wrote. “Most of all, I pray that God would be pleased from the job he assigned me to do. I thank the Lord for using me to help others, even though I am such a broken vessel.”
Over the final 14 days of quarantine, the boredom helped regain her composure. Though she still wasn’t free, she at least had a window this time.
Passing the final tests, she finally returned home. Her son immediately played with his toys, while she took a long disinfecting shower and jumped into her sofa. She spent extra days isolating at home, just to be safe. She joined prayer groups and stayed busy on Twitter, giving advice to passengers stranded near San Francisco on another Princess Cruises’ ship, the Grand Princess, with 21 confirmed coronavirus cases on board.
Even after all of this, she said she was looking forward to her next cruise.
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Based in Asia since 1987, Canadian journalist Christopher Johnson (www.globalitemagazine.com) is author of novels Siamese Dreams, Kobe Blue and Freedom’s Rainbow. He spent most of November ill from his journeys in central China near Wuhan. He self-isolated on an island in Japan during the entire Diamond Princess ordeal.