The Courters take their temperatures in their cabin on the Diamond Princess. Photo: Philip Courter

The word quarantine comes from a 17th-century Venetian variant of the Italian quaranta giorni, meaning 40 days, the period that all ships were required to be isolated before passengers and crew could go ashore during the Black Death plague epidemic. – Wikipedia

In those days, after any survivors had disembarked, as an extra precaution the ship would be burned to the bilge. But aside from that last step, which became difficult with the switch from easily ignited wooden ships to steel, little seems to have changed in four centuries.

American documentary filmmakers Gay and Phil Courter so far are in an early stage of that time-tested process. They’re stuck on the cruise ship Diamond Princess at the Yokohama docks – unable to persuade Japanese authorities that there are better ways to deal with passengers who are considered at risk of having been infected with an infectious disease.

The Courters, from Crystal River, Florida, want to get off the ship.

“It has come to our attention through US medical sources that we may not be safe in quarantine because the air recirculation can contain the droplets of this virus,” Gay Courter told Asia Times by email Friday. “This is an older ship and I would suspect it does not have modern medical filtration. Passengers tend to be in the higher-risk age category. The cruise ship is a disease incubator.”

In addition to making films with her 77-year-old husband, the 75-year-old Gay Courter is a novelist. Thus she is more than aware of plot twists.

In this case, she said, “the Japanese are keeping no one safe but having us remain in this place for two more weeks” – the coronavirus’s incubation period. Meanwhile, “the rate of infection is mirroring what has happened exponentially in China. It could be something like legionnaires disease that is carried in air-conditioning. Our medical advisers suggest we should get out of here as soon as possible. Frankly, we are terrified.”

The couple are members of an organization called Medjet, which, she said, “promises evacuation in these situations, including pandemics. Their crisis management team is on the case but they claim that they cannot get permission to remove us, from the Japanese government or the American government. They do say most of the problem is with the Japanese and their insistence on a 14-day quarantine.”

Courter warned that “if people who have been evacuated from the ship start dying or more people come down with a virus, it will have worldwide implications – not the least of which is people refusing to come to Japan for the Olympics” later this year.

“It would be much more prudent for the Japanese to allow people like us with private evacuation insurance to leave the country under quarantine and hazmat procedures. We have several hospitals which are willing to accept us in quarantine in the United States. We have taken our temperature and have no symptoms and are considered healthy. We are also taking Tamiflu prophylactically.”

Attendants prepare to load an infected passenger into an ambulance from cruise ship Diamond Princess at the Yokohama docks. Photo: Philip Courter
More ambulances wait their turns. Photo: Philip Courter

The Courters hope Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US President Donald Trump will “work out a way to repatriate all the Americans on board including some very elderly passengers and small children. This will lead the way for other governments to get involved. There are quite a number of Australians, Chinese, Koreans, folks from Singapore, a large Russian contingent and somewhere like 1,000 Americans.”

The Courters are among probably only a “few who have private evacuation insurance that covers epidemics,” she added, “so we won’t be any trouble or expense to any government.”

Courter said all the officials on board are Japanese since the quarantine is under Japanese control. “All announcements are only through the captain. The staff wears masks and gloves.”

Asked if she had seen any signs of factions developing, according to nationality or other factors, she said there was no way of knowing because “we have no contact with anyone except six friends by phone. We are completely confined to cabins.”

While the Courters at least have a balcony, she said, passengers who booked inside cabins without windows “are allowed to walk on deck, not getting close to each other, for 30 minutes a day!”

A footnote: Some of those inside-cabin passengers have tweeted videos showing their relief at being let outside even for such a short time:

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