The fundamental responsibility of a country to its citizens can be summed up in two words: to provide and protect. But in a situation like the Diamond Princess Covid 19 quarantine, where more than 3,700 individuals coming from several different countries are confined in a limited space, is there a single entity that must take responsibility for ensuring their health and safety, as well as providing for their daily basic needs?
The Diamond Princess became known for being the largest single cluster of Covid 19 outside of China. It had set sail from Yokohama Japan to begin a two-week cruise that included stops at China, Hong Kong, Taipei, and Vietnam. An elderly man disembarked in Hong Kong after one leg of the journey and on Feb. 1 had himself checked at a hospital, where he was confirmed to have the disease.
The ship cut short its voyage and went back to Yokohama on Feb. 3, a day ahead of schedule, where the Japanese government checked the health status of guests and crew. By the next day, it was confirmed that 10 people had tested positive for the coronavirus. Japanese officials decided to put the Diamond Princess on a 14-day quarantine after global health authorities put the incubation period for Covid 19 at 2-14 days.
Japan knew that making the decision to allow the ill-fated ship to dock in the country was a huge responsibility. The disease was new, discovered only in December 2019, and nothing was yet known about it except its origin.
The Japanese administration had another option. Under maritime law, it could have forbidden the ship to enter its territorial waters, since it wasn’t in distress at that time. This was what four countries did to the MS Westerdam. The Holland America Line cruise ship was denied permission to dock in ports in Guam, Philippines, Thailand and Guam out of coronavirus fears although no case of it was on the ship. Japan did refuse entry too, to the HAL ship since it was still coping with the Diamond Princess drama.
Roughly half of the 2,666 passengers on board the Diamond Princess were Japanese; the 1,045 crew members were Filipinos, Indians, and Indonesians. But Japan took responsibility for all of them, regardless of nationality. The Ministry of Health was in constant communication with the Princess Cruises management and global organizations for health and safety, and control and prevention of diseases.
Admittedly, there were lapses in the quarantine processes. Testing was prioritized for those with symptoms and the elderly because testing kits were not enough for everyone, 23 passengers were mistakenly released after initially testing negative when they should have been tested again, sick and healthy crew shared the same eating spaces and living quarters without protective gear, and the crew had to serve the passengers their meals, putting them in close contact with each other.
But Japan took on the challenge of taking on the logistics nightmare, transporting sick patients to hospitals, including those who were sick of another illness, testing and doing followup tests, procuring medicines and other supplies, among others. But in spite of their best efforts, several experts have called into question the effectiveness of the quarantine on board and said it should have been done onshore. A Japanese infectious diseases expert who stayed on the ship for less than two hours described the situation as inadequate in infection control.
These critics should know that the purpose of a quarantine is to protect the public, in this case the Japanese population, from the sick or those exposed to the disease. The same experts argue that the quarantine should have been on land, without realizing that looking for a facility other than the ship to lockdown almost four thousand people within a very limited time frame is near to impossible and would have presented a whole different set of issues.
Much still had to be learned about Covid 19. People who test negative now could be positive later, and those without the symptoms can still pass on the disease to others.
Meanwhile, the US government had been eerily silent on what help they could have contributed to the situation, in spite of the ship’s company being American-owned and roughly 400 of the passengers being US citizens. Three days into the quarantine, an American couple on their honeymoon on the doomed ship went on video and appealed to US President Trump to save them and get them off the Diamond Princess. In another CNN report, American author Gay Courter said she doesn’t know what the US government’s plans are.
It was only on Feb. 16 that two chartered planes arrived to take the quarantined passengers back to the US. And for all the fuss they made over the “failed quarantine” of Abe’s administration, state officials allowed the 14 infected passengers to take the repatriation flight along with the more than 300 uninfected people, raising angry protests from the passengers, CDC and the president himself for letting Covid 19 positive people into US soil. So much for taking responsibility.
Japan’s acceptance of the Diamond Princess into its territory and its commitment to take on the unenviable task of dealing with an unknown is a sterling example of ethical and social responsibility, of living up to its principles and values, and performing its civic duty to humankind without territorial boundaries.