In the Age of Corona, cruise ships have become a tragic poster pin-up for virus hot zones.
They’ve also highlighted global gaps in biosecurity screening while, on a local level, lighting up our net of connections.
The Guardian reports (see its Full Story podcast) that when luxury liner the Ruby Princess returned from a cruise via Port Chalmers, NZ to Sydney on 8 March, 158 passengers were unwell, with 38 running high temperatures. Accordingly, the cruise ship itself was classified at port as a medium biosecurity risk.
Nine were tested for Covid-19 that day (two would test positive), yet incredibly, while results were still pending, within hours the same crew had readied the ship to return to NZ and 2,700 new passengers had boarded.
By the time the Ruby Princess arrived in Wellington on 14 March (the day both Jacinda Ardern and Scott Morrison announced bans on cruise ships, a move described by the “stunned” NZ Cruise Association chief executive as “quite draconian”), five passengers were displaying flu-like symptoms.
Allowed to complete its voyage, the following day the ship berthed in Napier, marking a truncated, if not bustling end to a “successful” cruise season.
From Napier, the Ruby Princess bypassed Tauranga (due to poor weather conditions, NZ Herald reported), arriving in Sydney on 18 March, where it was exempt from the ban, now considered ‘low risk’ having come from NZ.
Despite one passenger being so sick she was met by an ambulance at the wharf and taken to hospital (where she would die from coronavirus five days later), all 2,700 passengers (over half of whom were Australian) and 1,100 crew were allowed to freely disembark – “a mistake”, NSW Health now admits. Dispersing by public transport and domestic flights across the continent and further abroad, these passengers would take coronavirus to every state of Australia.
By 31 March, 10% of Australia’s confirmed cases of coronavirus (at least 440 of Australia’s then 4,500 cases) were from the Ruby Princess, whose passengers also accounted for a quarter of Australia’s corona deaths (5 of 19).
Closer to home in Hawke’s Bay, the Ruby Princess is responsible for a local cluster of cases (at least 13 so far, more than half HB’s total), and no small amount of alarm, via a ‘tour guide’ (Stuff’s Marty Sharpe reports) who spent time with cruise passengers on Sunday 15th, and who would unwittingly, disastrously bring the disease to a rest home in Napier, and an elderly tour bus driver (our first Hawke’s Bay hospital admission).
While the incident has drawn unfair ire on social media, the days following that fateful cruise encounter, it must be remembered, brought a bewildering, unprecedented flurry of rapid-fire changes.
On Sunday Hawke’s Bay had no case yet of corona and we were still welcoming cruise to our shores; by Monday all events with over 500 people were banned. On Tuesday 17th, we woke to markets in free-fall and the “rainy day” the finance minister had been planning for, and dwindling flight options. By Wednesday our government was calling for Kiwis to “come home”, Australia declared a “human biosecurity emergency” (while allowing the Ruby Princess to disembark), and local bars and entertainment venues were nervously looking down the barrel at closures.
On Friday 20th, Hawke’s Bay had its first official case; while news broke in Australia of positive-covid cases from the Ruby Princess.
On Saturday (a week later) we were at Alert Level Two; by the time the tour guide tested positive, we were in lockdown.
Hohepa’s Craft Works on Napier’s Tennyson St sees a lot of customers when a cruise ship comes to town, but by early March the weavery and craft shop already had barred cruise from its doors, not willing to run the risk for its vulnerable residents. Hohepa had also taken early steps ahead of the government to ensure its workers, many of whom come from overseas, self-quarantined for 14 days if they had recently travelled.
Ironically, for all their precaution, it was a local who wasn’t travelling but doing their job here that brought the risk home. Close contact with Hohepa, forced the organisation into isolation and full containment measures, as the potential implications fanned out through one of HB biggest employers. While Hohepa will be breathing a sigh of relief – it turns out they “dodged a bullet” – Gladys Mary Care Home, which also took precautions, is in quarantine, dealing with multiple cases among its vulnerable residents.
There’s no moral to this story, other than the chain of transmission, and potential transmission (from the boy who mowed the tour guide’s lawns in exchange for cash, to my mother who shared coffee with them in a kitchen) shows our tangible distance from one another is only a matter of degrees.
And that if wasn’t clear on 14 March why the government banned cruise ships, it should be now.