Last February, as COVID-19 first began to spread across the globe, the world looked on as the disease tore through the Diamond Princess cruise ship, trapping over 3,700 passengers and crew members on board in quarantine and eventually leading to more than 700 positive cases and 14 deaths.
Now, a new HBO documentary called The Last Cruise takes a look inside the ship during those weeks on board, using passenger and crew footage and interviews to show how the situation quickly devolved into crisis that saw staff aboard the ship ‘put in harm’s way’ in order to keep the guests as comfortable and happy as possible.
The chaotic time was exacerbated by a ‘built-in caste system’ on the ship, wherein crew members were unable to quarantine but had to continue working and taking care of guests, even as their own lives were at risk.
The World Health Organization (WHO) released its first Situation Report on COVID-19 on January 20, 2020. By then, four cases were confirmed outside of Wuhan, where the outbreak originated.
January 20 was also the day that the Diamond Princess cruise ship departed from Yokohama, Japan with 2,666 passengers and 1,045 crew members on board.
On board the ship, it was clear that no one was concerned about this novel coronavirus spreading through China, though the boat would go on to make stops in Hong Kong and Taiwan, as well as Vietnam, over the two-week trip.
Footage in HBO’s The Last Cruise shows vacationers boarding the ship, taking fitness classes, reading, playing games, watching performances, and dancing in crowded ballrooms, all enjoying their travels.
Jerri Jorgensen, an American passenger, said she and her husband Mark had been looking forward to the trip.
‘Mark had spent two years in Taiwan on a mission for our church. He was so excited to show me all the sites and then this Asian cruise just came up on our radar so we signed up,’ she said.
But while guests were in high spirits, it was more complicated for staff and crew members, who describe working on a ship as a high-pressure, low-paying job with the perk of getting to travel the world.
‘If you’ve ever taken a cruise, everything is very glamorous and wonderful, but what goes on behind the scenes, the ship is like a machine, it’s like its own world,’ said Luke Hefner, an American cruise performer.
‘It’s a wonderful lifestyle and I have seen some amazing things, being from a very small town in east Tennessee. But if you work below deck, most of your life onboard is below water.’
Dede Samsul Fuad, an Indonesian crew member who worked as a dishwasher on the ship, elaborated: ‘The pressure is high. If our performance for the day is bad, our supervisors scold us. For those who have never worked on a cruise ship and think that their job is stressful, it’s nothing compared to this.’
Maruja Daya, a pastry chef, said her pay was just $997 a month for 13-hour work days with no time off. It’s just enough to support her two children, but she also got to ‘explore different places’ and ‘explore different people in the world.’
But this was business as usual for crew members and frequent cruise takers, and on January 25 — as the CDC confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in the US — the ship docked in Hong Kong and passengers disembarked to explore.
At this point, many of the passengers had never even heard of COVID-19, and were unconcerned about its threat.
‘The morning we get to Hong Kong, it was Chinese new year,’ Cheryl Molesky, an American passenger vacationing with her husband Paul, said.
‘Paul’s daughter had texted us and she was like, “Well don’t get off the ship, there’s some kind of a virus going around and people are dying.” And we’re like, “What? We really haven’t heard anything about this.”
‘Paul and I walk down to the desk, they said, “Well, Princess Cruises has said that it’s safe. No problem.” So we said, “Well, we’re going to go.”
‘And at the time we’re kind of thinking we’re having that Asian experience [by] wearing a mask. You would never do that in the United States!’ she recalled.
Yet one passenger who had disembarked and stayed behind in Hong Kong started feeling ill, and on February 1, they tested positive for COVID-19.
So on February 3, as the Diamond Princess arrived in Japanese waters, it was placed under quarantine.
‘Our last stop in Okinawa, they were taking everyone’s temperature and interviewing everybody and not just letting them walk of the ship like we had been used to,’ American passenger Mark Jorgensen said.
‘It was inconveniencing my trip,’ his wife, Jerri, added. ‘So I was going, “Oh man, come on we’ve only got so many hours here, I’ve got things to see!”‘
That’s when the captain made an announcement.
‘Diamond Princess, this is your captain speaking from the bridge. Please be advised that we have been notified that a Hong Kong resident who traveled for five days on Diamond Princess from Yokohama to Hong Kong tested positive for coronavirus,’ he said.
‘And, as is standard practice, we will conduct a review of the vessel, together with additional medical screening,’ he went on. ‘We are indeed closely recording and monitoring all persons who report to the medical center with cold and flu symptoms.
‘The situation is under control, and therefore there are no reasons for concerns,’ he concluded.
‘Under control’ meant, in part, that guests were kept entertained. Though the ship was quarantined, those on board were not separated from one another at first, with activities in common areas and dining rooms still full.
Japanese health officials boarded the ship to administer tests, but guests continued to mingle.
However, that didn’t last long, and on February 15, passengers were told to go to their rooms.
The ship’s captain soon made a pair of announcements, revealing that 20 passengers had tested positive for coronavirus and were being ‘transported to the local hospital for ongoing care.’
The ship would remain in quarantine, he said, and masks would be delivered to passengers’ rooms.
Guests, still not quite grasping the scope of the problem — and so few did in those early weeks of the pandemic — felt a shift in the quality of their vacation.
American passenger Cheryl Molesky admitted in a video she recorded at the time that ‘room service has been a little tricky,’ while fellow American passenger Mark Jorgensen noticed that the crew weren’t ‘as friendly as they were during the rest of the time.
‘And they had to hurry to. They had to hurry and they weren’t getting tips anymore,’ he said.
While guests were bored in their rooms, crew members were still working, living in shared accommodations and coming into contact with others throughout the day.
‘We still didn’t know what kind of virus it was. If it was deadly, or a normal virus like the flu. We were afraid we would never see our families again,’ explained Maruja Daya, the pastry chef.
‘We felt like only the rich would be taken care of. It’s not only the passengers who are threatened by this virus, so why are we still working?’
‘We couldn’t just stay in our rooms,’ added Luke Hefner, the performer. ‘Even though the passengers were quarantined and were not allowed to leave, the crew had to keep the ship going, answering phones, delivering medication, cleaning for 12 hours a day. And we delivered 3,000 meals, three times a day, to all the guests.
‘We were put into harm’s way but in the moment that’s all we knew how to do. We were just doing what we were told.’
By February 17, on the 17th day of quarantine and the 29th day on board the ship, there were 61 cases on the Diamond Princess.
By now, rooms with infected people had signs on their doors, and staff were wearing hazmat suits.
Franco Swart, a South African crew doctor, called the experience ‘overwhelming,’ describing it as ‘non-stop from morning to night’.
‘The Japanese authorities used the crew for the well being and for the safety of the passengers,’ he said. ‘But the crew areas are such a confined space that it’s impossible for them not to have exposure to each other.’
Dede Samsul Fuad, the Indonesian crew member, said crew who were infected weren’t separated from those who weren’t, with some ill crew members failing to report their symptoms.
‘I cried silently. I was scared to complain because I was a new employee. I wasn’t brave enough, honestly,’ he said.
February 19 ticked the total number of cases up to 70, and crew members went around covering vents between rooms and the hallways with tape.
Guests were worried that they’d get sick, and wondered if they’d ever get off the boat.
‘There was this rumor that they were planning to sink the ship in the water with the people,’ said on-board security official Sonali Thakkar. ‘And we were scared when we heard that. Oh god, are they going to drown us now because they have found viruses?’
By February 11, there were 125 confirmed cases on board, with daily temperature checks for passengers who stayed in their rooms watching TV.
February 13 saw a total of 218 cases on board, as well as the deaths of the first two passengers.
‘Two guests who had previously disembarked the Diamond Princess have passed away. Our hearts go out to the families, friends, and all who are impacted by these losses,’ the captain said in an announcement.
Despite the deaths, crew members continued to share rooms, even when one had tested positive.
‘On the crew decks there are no windows, no ways that you can look outside, you don’t know what time of the day it is until you look at the clock. So I just lost it,’ said Sonali, the security guard.
Cases were up to 285 on February 15, but finally, there was some hope for American on board: American doctors show up and say that they will soon be taken off the ship by a military plane.
Two days later, on February 17 — with 454 cases on board — the Americans departed via military planes.
While some sat together, a plastic enclosure in the middle of the plane held people who had tested positive for the virus.
‘When they were taking the temps, I heard them say to the man behind me that his temp was high. And then they said that he had to go back into the quarantine,’ said Cheryl Molesky.
Despite all of the chaos, however, American passenger Jerri Jorgensen was still looking forward to her next trip.
‘A lot of people of people have said, “Are you ever going to cruise again?” Yes, we’re going in May,’ she said in footage from the ship.
Once all of the passengers had disembarked, crew members who were left behind began speaking to the media.
‘We are afraid we are being killed slowly. We work here to support our families in Indonesia. Please don’t let us catch the virus and die slowly because we get evacuated too late,’ one said.
Indonesian crew members ended up being the last people to leave the ship, on March 1.
In total, 712 people tested positive for COVID-19, and 14 passengers died.
Director Hannah Olson told The Daily Beast that she started working on the project, which premiered on HBO on March 30, last March, sensing the importance of the story.
‘No one knew how much our lives would change forever, but I think I knew enough in those early days that the origin story would remain interesting,’ she said. ‘It became, for me, as much of a story about what happens in a crisis and how we narrate it.’
She said that she purposefully didn’t include experts in the documentary, wanting viewers to feel what it was like for the passengers, who had very limited information at the time.
‘I wanted it to be an experiential film where the viewer is transported back to the feelings that we all had early on in the pandemic: not knowing what’s happening, denial, confusion, terror,’ she said.
She also wanted to capture how the experience differed for those who’d boarded the ship for a fun vacation and those who were there to work.
‘Cruise ships have such a built-in caste system with passengers and crew, and then even among the crew there’s a hierarchy,’ she said. ‘It was a way for me to look at how this crisis affected people in different social standings in different classes.
‘Who gets to count as being a human being? For me, this became a story about who gets to take shelter, who gets to be in quarantine, and who has to be a human shield.’
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