Best-selling Florida-based writer Gay Courter and her documentary filmmaker husband Phil were among the 2,666 passengers and 1,045 crew on the Diamond Princess last February 3, heading back to Yokohama after completing a two-week southeast Asian cruise.
This excerpt from her new book picks up as the Courters were about to disembark for another week in Japan before returning to the United States, completely unaware that they soon would be fighting to get themselves – and everyone else – off the ship (and, in the process, sending news of their struggle to Asia Times among several news organizations).
Packing up after a week in Tokyo and two weeks aboard the Diamond Princess was not an easy task. I’d picked up souvenirs in Kagoshima, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Okinawa, not to mention Tokyo. Our extra bag was stuffed with embroidered pillowcases, Chinese lanterns, monogrammed chopsticks, toy Shinkansen trains, sushi refrigerator magnets, tenugui towels and other must-have souvenirs. I was almost late for the very last contest in my favorite cruise activity – trivia.
“Seriously, Gay …,” Phil said in a grumpy voice. “Can’t you skip the last game?”
“I can’t let down the team!” I said as I opened the door. “I promise I’ll finish up as soon as it’s over.”
Phil looked dubious but he knew it was pointless to argue.
“What is someone with ailurophobia afraid of?” The assistant cruise director had already asked the first question when I pulled a nearby chair close to James, Debbie and Karen. Karen had written down “cats” on the scratch paper.
“Yep,” I said.
A bottle of Champagne sat in an ice bucket on the tiny round cocktail table before us, alongside two cups of peanuts. Debbie had moved the glasses to the ledge behind her to make room for the answer sheet. Once the game was over, we were delighted to be tied for first place. The other team was closer on the tiebreaker: “What’s the height of Mount Fuji?”
Who cares? James popped the cork and poured the too-sweet Champagne, which had been our prize the night before by acing the “All About Japan” quiz.
After one glass, I said, “Phil wants our bags out in the hall before supper.”
James shot his wife a knowing glance. “Don’t look at me,” she said. “My bag is locked and loaded.”
We hugged and said our farewells. James looked at Karen’s glass. “You going to finish that?” She shook her head and he drank it down, a meaningless gesture at the time and yet it turned into a freeze-frame I would long remember.
I hightailed it back to the room in time to hear Captain Arma’s mellifluous voice over the loudspeaker.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please be advised that we have been notified by the Hong Kong authorities that a Hong Kong resident who traveled for five days from Yokohama to Hong Kong, disembarking in Hong Kong on January twenty-five, tested positive for coronavirus on February first – five days after leaving the vessel. He did not report any illness or symptoms to the ship’s medical center during the voyage and the fever was not detected during the screening on arrival in Hong Kong. He is currently reported to be in a stable condition and his family traveling companions remain symptom free. We have proactively shared all relevant data for this voyage with the Japanese health authorities, and as is standard practice with all coronavirus cases, they have informed us they will conduct a review of the vessel upon arrival.”
“What? Someone has coronavirus on board!”
Phil held up his hand for me to be quiet.
“…This will likely result in delays while they review health records and will likely conduct interviews along with additional medical screening. Hence, to facilitate the review, we will be arriving Yokohama earlier this evening [than planned] and I will keep you updated with the information on the evolution of the evolving situation.”
“I hope we can still make our train in the morning,” I said.
“We have also made a delay in the embarkation of the next cruise by twenty-four hours to accommodate any potential delays,” the captain added.
“What the hell?” Phil shouted.
“I thank you for your patience and understanding while we deal with this dynamic event and I’d like to assure you once again at present there are no reasons for concerns. Like I said, as the situation evolves and dictates, I will make a further broadcast in the course of the evening.”
“Wait, does that mean we’re not getting off tomorrow?” Phil said, seething.
“That’s not what he said,” I replied. “They’ve delayed the next sailing by a day because those people would have started embarking around noon.”
“That guy could have contaminated the whole ship!”
“Not necessarily,” I said. “He was only on board for five days.”
“We could be sick already and not even know it.”
“The chances are slim that we were anywhere near him,” I countered.
“Remember we ended up departing Hong Kong late because they kept calling for passengers who hadn’t returned?” Phil’s voice became strident. “Maybe he was feeling sick then and decided he’d rather be in his own bed.”
“If that’s true,” I asked, “why didn’t he test positive for six more days?”
“We’re all going to get this.” Phil said, taking his usual pessimistic stance.
“This ship is huge,” I said, rubbing my temples, “and we’ve mostly kept to ourselves.”
“But if we were in the same buffet line or on the same elevator with that guy, then we’re done for. I need some fresh air,” Phil said, opening the balcony door. “I can’t wait to get off this ship.”
Phil and I were supposed to be met at eight the next morning by a driver who would take us to the train station in Yokohama so we could continue our vacation with a sojourn in the Japanese countryside. If we missed the first train, we wouldn’t make the connection to the Izu peninsula.
I followed Phil outside. “How long have they known that man was sick?” he said. “And why are they telling us now? He might have been unwell even before he boarded the ship.”
“He probably contracted it from someone who had been to China – or he could have visited China himself.”
“And remember the crowds at the terminal for embarkation?” Phil continued. “Do you know how easy it is to get to anywhere in China from Hong Kong? For all we know this man was in Wuhan before he boarded the ship.”
Tapping on my phone, I searched for news. “As of today, there are over twenty thousand cases of the coronavirus in twenty-four countries, according to the World Health Organization … four hundred and twenty-six deaths thus far, all except one in China.”
Phil pointed forward. “Look, the lights of Yokohama. They really did speed up. We weren’t supposed to get in until early morning.”
I went inside and put the last few items in a suitcase. Phil tagged each one and l put it outside our cabin door. But before he had the last one out, our room steward knocked. “Not tonight,” he said and slid the bags back into the cabin. He also handed Phil some paperwork.
“Apparently, we’re not going anywhere,” Phil said, looking at the forms.
“What are those?”
“Health questionnaires from the Japanese health department.” Phil tossed them on the desk. “They’re going to examine us and take our temperatures, going room to room all night.”
“I’ll send a message to the travel agency to see what alternatives there are. If we miss one night, it won’t be the worst thing in the world.” I opened the balcony door and beckoned to Phil. “Look, we’re anchored in the harbor instead of being at the quay.” I pointed to where a Coast Guard vessel was bobbing by an open door – the one usually used by the pilots who go to the bridge to guide ships in crowded harbors.
“Who’s getting on the ship this time of night?” he asked.
“Maybe the health inspectors?”
A helicopter was circling the ship. “I feel like everything is closing in,” Phil said as he got into bed and started switching among the few English-language news channels.
“Anything about our ship?”
“It wouldn’t be on the news yet.”
“That could have been a news helicopter. Just in case the kids hear about the ship, I’m going to tell them we’re delayed.”
“Coming to bed?”
“In a few minutes,” I said, thinking I might as well stay up in case they came to take our temperature soon. Plus, my curiosity was aroused. Phil turned off the television. I pulled up the extra blanket we used on the couch and thought about our predicament.
Here it was only a few days into February. At Christmas nobody had ever heard of this disease and now there were twenty thousand cases in more than twenty countries. It had been confined to China until mid-January, but every few days it popped up in another locale.
I checked my emails. There was a response from our tour company with ideas about salvaging the trip. I wrote saying I would let them know as soon as we had more information. Then I sent a group email to the kids telling them about the delay in a lighthearted way so they wouldn’t think we were in danger. But were we?
One man who was on our ship had the virus. Was he contagious before he had symptoms or only after? No matter, he had the potential to infect others. The Diamond Princess had more than thirty-seven hundred souls on board. If the man from Hong Kong had infected two people a day for the five days he was on board, and they each infected two people ….
I knew how that ended based on the tale about a sage who made a deal with a maharajah over a chess game. If the wealthy man lost, he would owe the sage only one grain of rice for the first square, two for the second, doubling until he reached the sixty-fourth square.
But the debt could never be paid because by the twentieth square, the maharajah would have had to deliver a million grains of rice, and by the sixty-fourth, the amount was over two hundred and ten billion tons, enough to cover India with a meter-thick layer of rice. This was a classic example of exponential growth.
No wonder the Chinese had locked down Wuhan! If they hadn’t used draconian measures, this could turn into the worst pandemic in human history.
I climbed into bed and tried to relax, but doomsday scenarios kept agitating me. I went back to where my iPhone was charging. Somebody needs to know what’s happening here…somebody who can investigate and … advocate…and get us the hell off this ship. Many years ago, a journalist at ABC News produced a story about my book I Speak for this Child: True Stories of a Child Advocate. Lately, we were Facebook friends. Maybe he would have some ideas….
To: Jon M.
Subject: Guess where we are?
Thought you might be interested that we are in Yokohama harbor on the Diamond Princess. We were supposed to disembark tomorrow, but the news is that a passenger who disembarked in Hong Kong has tested positive. We were in Hong Kong Jan 25 just for the day. About 300 Chinese on board. Now we are waiting for Japanese authorities to do health checks. No word on what will happen next. Stay tuned. Will report if it gets interesting.
I hesitated briefly, then pressed “send.” Finally, I went to bed but slept fitfully, anticipating the knock on the door for the temperature check. It never came.
⚓ ⚓ ⚓
The next morning, the captain announced that thus far only half the passengers had been seen by the Japanese public health officers, so our departure definitely would be delayed for twenty-four hours and there was no chance of getting off the ship that day. “Please be advised that you may be required to undergo additional health screening by local health officials before you disembark the ship or exit the terminal,” the captain concluded. We were free to roam the ship, he said, but we needed to return to our cabins when they announced that the inspectors were coming to our deck.
I looked down at my phone and saw a lot of new messages. “Oh, boy,” I said.
“Last night…well…” I told Phil about my email to Jon.
A few minutes later, I counted more than fifteen emails from various people at ABC News. “I had no idea anyone would even care!” I scanned each one. “I guess Jon told them we do documentaries. They’re asking for footage – and wait, more than that. Good Morning America wants you to film me on-camera to explain what’s happening. “Should we do it?”
“I can’t see any harm.” Phil sighed. “I’m just sorry I didn’t bring my professional equipment.”
“I’m hoping we’ll get off tomorrow without incident and the story will fizzle,” I said as I unpacked my cosmetics bag. I made faces at myself in the mirror. I’ve never mastered all the creams, blushes, and eyeliners and I wished that our daughter, Ashley, who is a magician with hair and makeup, were there. Then I remembered that a Japanese friend once admitted that women wear masks when they don’t have time to do their makeup. I put on one of the ones I’d bought in Vietnam. “My new look,” I said.
“What? I can’t understand you with that thing on.”
Phil shooed away the one I handed him. “Humor me,” I said, “just until we’re off this ship of fools.”
⚓ ⚓ ⚓
When we went out on deck again, I saw the ship more from the point of view of a producer thinking about what shots would be emblematic of the situation. Phil had replaced his iPhone with his pocket-sized camcorder. We passed the passenger service desk, where a long line of people was waiting with questions about their travel arrangements. “Get some shots of that.”
“Why? Everyone looks frantic and pissed off.”
“That’s the point. What a difference a day makes.”
Up on deck, I walked to a railing overlooking a giant movie screen. They were showing a classical music concert and a Strauss waltz was playing. “It’s just like the Titanic. The orchestra doesn’t miss a beat while the ship is sinking.” I got in position for a standup in front of the screen. It took several takes – with and without the mask – to get what I was saying matched with the right piece of the music. “How about a shot of all those mah-jongg players. What if the gentleman from Hong Kong played mah-jongg? Everybody’s touching the same tiles, drinking, eating, breathing close to each other.”
I kept pointing out little scenes that suddenly had taken on a second meaning. Was that child sleeping in her grandmother’s arms feverish? Was that Korean couple arguing about whether they had to submit to a Japanese health inspection? What about the group of fraternity boys with several pitchers of beer before lunch? Were they partying or drowning their sorrows?
The loudspeaker crackled. “Will the passengers on Dolphin Deck starboard side please return to your cabins for your health check.”
“That’s us,” Phil said.
As we waited for the elevator, I started thinking about what my father once told me as we suffered through a long airline delay: “When you travel you’re in a zone I call ‘limbo’ because you’re trapped in a system you can’t control. All you can do is relax and let it all happen around you until you arrive.” He then crossed his arms, closed his eyes, and fell asleep in a straight-backed chair. While I’ve never mastered that skill, I knew this was a limbo moment. We had no choice but to submit to the authorities until we could regain the reins and make decisions about our next move.
Back in the room, I found a Coke in the fridge. “Want to share?” Phil nodded and I poured him a glass, then checked my emails.
We were interrupted by a double knock on the door. Two very young-looking men wearing masks and gloves took only a few steps inside. One touched the tip of an infrared thermometer to my ear and the other wrote down the reading. Without cleaning it, they did the same to Phil.
“Okay?” Phil asked expectantly. One of them bowed slightly. The other pulled a piece of paper from his clipboard and waved it at us.
“Oh, the health sheet.” I looked on the desk but didn’t see our filled-out questionnaires.
“I put them right there,” Phil said tensely.
“Oh, here.” They were under a New Yorker. I double-checked to see I had all the pages of both forms. The heading, which I hadn’t noticed before, caught my eye. I pointed it out to Phil before I handed it to the temperature takers. The paperwork was from the “Quarantine Division.”
“I thought they were going to give us more of an exam.”
“They looked more afraid of us than we were of them,” Phil said.
Phil turned on CNN and up popped a shot of our ship anchored off the coast of Yokohama. “… Eighty-year-old man from Hong Kong…had visited mainland China for only a few hours on January tenth …”
“So, the man from Hong Kong had been in China.”
“… flew into Tokyo … on January seventeenth with his two daughters and two days later said he began developing a cough…. On January twenty-fifth he got off in Hong Kong…. He sought medical attention on January thirtieth and was diagnosed with the virus shortly after. He is currently in stable condition.”
I turned up the volume as the story continued. “The Japanese health ministry said it is investigating the infected patient’s movements during his time in Japan but must rely on authorities in Hong Kong for information since the patient is there.”
There were scenes of Japanese officials wearing masks, walking near an elevator bank on the ship. One of them was in full hazmat regalia with a face shield and blue gloves. He was carrying an orange plastic bag of medical waste.
“When we get off,” Phil said, “let’s not tell people in Japan we were on this ship.”
“You’re right,” I agreed – but kept my next thought to myself: That is, if we get off …
⚓ ⚓ ⚓
After dinner with friends in the dining room, Phil and I went for a stroll on the promenade deck. “Why the hell haven’t we even docked at the pier?” I said between clenched teeth. “Everyone coming from the shore is wearing hazmat suits. They’re treating us like lepers.” Tears blurred my vision. All the tension I felt throughout the day was seeping through my pores. I felt blotchy patches break out on my face. “The men who took our temperature …they weren’t health officers … they’re quarantine officers. If they find anyone with this disease, they’re going to take them to a locked facility – in fact, they could detain everyone on the ship for a few weeks – even months.”
“Don’t let your imagination run away with you, Gay.”
“Quarantena means forty days in Italian, which is how long a ship had to stay offshore if they suspected bubonic plague was onboard. After two months, when everyone was infected – and dead – the plague ship was burnt.”
“I know what you need,” Phil said, “How about one last green-tea ice cream?”
It was my favorite shipboard snack. I smiled. “Let’s just hope it is the last – at least on the ship.”
Even though I half expected it, I winced at seeing the luggage we had put out in the hall before dinner crowding our room. Phil pushed the bags against the door to clear a path. I opened my overnight bag, fished out my nightgown and toiletries, and burrowed under the smooth sheets in record time. My lost sleep the night before caught up with me and I passed out before Phil made it out of the bathroom.
At 6:30 the morning of Wednesday, February 5, the speaker over the bed chimed to warn of an imminent announcement. “Good morning,” the captain began, “the Ministry of Health has notified us that ten people have tested positive for the coronavirus.” I slid out of bed and reached for my hearing aids. “All guests must return to their cabins and remain there for the time being.”
“What the hell is going on?” I opened the drapes to the limpid dawn light. “We’re still at anchor.” I slid open the door. A bitter breeze ruffled the papers on the coffee table. I shut the door and crawled back into bed.
“Ten people!” Phil put his arm around me. “I thought it took a couple of days to get test results.”
“Maybe they just had high temperatures” is what I said, all the while thinking that Mr. Hong Kong, as I was now calling the departed passenger in my head, must have had enough contacts to give it to at least a few other passengers. I nestled close to Phil, pressed my feet to his calves to warm them, and fell back asleep.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen …”
“What time—” My travel clock read 8:12 a.m.
Phil hushed me as he sat up in bed. He pointed out the window. We were just coming back to the pier.
…Princess Cruises can confirm that the first phase of health screening of all guests and crew onboard Diamond Princess by the Japanese Ministry of Health has been completed. We were notified that amongst the samples that have completed testing, ten people have tested positive for coronavirus. This includes two Australian guests, three Japanese guests, three guests from Hong Kong, and one guest from the US, in addition to one Filipino crew member.
These ten persons, who have been notified, have been taken ashore by Japanese Coast Guard watercraft and transported to local hospitals for care by shoreside Japanese medical professionals. It has been confirmed that the ship will remain under quarantine in Yokohama. The length of the quarantine will be at least fourteen days as required by the Ministry of Health.
The ship plans to go out to sea today to perform normal marine operations, including, but not limited to, the production of fresh water and ballast operations before proceeding alongside in Yokohama where food, provisions, and other supplies will be brought onboard. Guests will continue to be provided complimentary internet and telephone to use in order to stay in contact with their family and loved ones, and the ship’s crew is working to keep all guests comfortable. Princess Cruises will continue to fully cooperate with and follow the instructions of global medical authorities and the Japanese government. We will also be canceling the next two Diamond Princess cruises departing Yokohama on February fourth and twelfth and will begin notifying guests today.
“I don’t understand…at least fourteen days…on the ship or do we have to stay in our cabin?”
“How would I know?” Phil got out of bed and opened the door to our balcony, which now overlooked the quay. “Oh, my God!”
“What?” I stumbled over my suitcase and went outside in my nightgown.
Ambulances and fire trucks were screaming down the road that led to the terminal. Military vehicles were lined up in rows. Everyone was wearing haz-mat suits in red, white, blue, and yellow. Workers were clumsily putting up blue plastic tarps to shield the gangways, at the bottom of which were ambulances positioned to take … to take what? People who were ill? People who had died? What the hell was going on?
All I knew is we were de facto prisoners of the Japanese authorities.
An excerpt adapted from Gay Courter’s Quarantine! How I Survived the Diamond Princess Coronavirus Crisis, published by Post Hill Press (distributed by Simon & Schuster) in the US and Canada on November 10 and in the UK on December 10. See QuarantineDiamondPrincess.com for more information.