Do you know what a glory it is just to sit, as a woman? To sit without looking up and seeing clothes to be folded, toys to be picked up, tiny butts to be wiped? That’s a glory I last experienced on the Wonder. The realities of the world were so beautifully kept out of view. Even when a kid pooped in the Mickey pool, no one spoke of it; the pool would just mysteriously close.
With the spread of the coronavirus evolving into a full-blown pandemic, these supposedly self-contained paradises have been exposed for what they always were: roiling metal containers, trapping us with our worst fears (and with our fellow humans) — places where the illusion of endless, effortless pleasure hides the disturbing ways that we are all entangled.
The Diamond Princess is now infamous as the floating site of an early outbreak. Vacationers departing from Yokohama in January for a two-week luxury trip ended up trapped in quarantine for a month; at least 705 passengers grew sick, and eight died. As the cruise liner sailed homeless, one British citizen sent out a message via social media, begging Richard Branson to come rescue him.
Then, this month, Grand Princess was held off the coast of San Francisco, in limbo, after coronavirus cases in California were linked to past passengers; at least 20 people on board tested positive. And just this week, vacationers on a British cruise were barred from disembarking in the Bahamas; five people aboard have tested positive for the virus.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cruise ships are cans of contamination because they crowd travelers from diverse regions into “semi-enclosed environments,” which “can facilitate the spread of person-to-person, foodborne, or waterborne diseases.” These outbreaks are further sustained by crew members who stay on board to work, rarely getting a chance to rest or get well.
Further compounding the problem, the CDC adds: “The remote location of the travelers at sea means that they may need to rely on the medical capabilities and supplies available onboard the ship for extended periods of time” — resources that are severely limited and expensive. Coronavirus wasn’t even the first time the Diamond Princess has been a luxurious viral incubator: In 2016, a gastroenteritis outbreak caused by the norovirus infected 158 passengers.
The glossy marketing of denial makes it easier for passengers to overlook the costs for human safety and well-being. Cruise ships generate high levels of air pollution, and some companies have been fined for illegally dumping gray water, oil-contaminated waste and plastic into the ocean — and also for falsifying records afterward. According to Paul Chapman, founder of the Center for Seafarers Rights in New York, their labor conditions make them “a sweatshop at sea.” And according to an FBI report, 35 sexual assaults on cruise ships were reported from July 1 through Sept. 30, an increase of 35 percent from the previous quarter. The number could be higher, but cruise ships that dock in non-U. S. ports don’t have to report incidents to the Cruise Vessel Security and Safety Act.
Reports from quarantined ships reveal the essential contradiction of cruises: Pleas for help are mixed with tales of almost bacchanalian delights. While passengers on the MC Westerdam and the Grand Princess snapped quarantine pics featuring a nacho bar, massive trays of chocolate and craft activities for the kids, crew members shared videos of their pleas for rescue. A Diamond Princess crew member told the New Yorker that it was the staff, working so diligently to keep everyone happy and in compliance with quarantine orders, who were especially likely to be affected; they performed the high-risk labor of transporting infected passengers and providing translation for government officials, but were also last in line to receive medical attention. (Princess Cruises told the magazine that it had followed the orders of government officials. According to the New York Times, the company says it responded to the virus the best it could, under unprecedented circumstances.)
Cruises are an almost perfect metaphor for a country and a presidential administration that works so hard to stand on the deck of a stewing metal pot of disease and assure us that everything is perfect — but which relies on the fundamental denial of the poop in the pool. On March 6, asked about the crisis aboard the Grand Princess, President Trump said he didn’t want to let the stranded passengers into the United States because “I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that wasn’t our fault.” Later, he tweeted that the coronavirus “situation” was being inflamed by the “Fake News Media and their partner, the Democrat Party.”
Such dismissals avoid the country’s increasingly obvious vulnerabilities. Many Americans, even the most comfortable, live one medical disaster away from financial ruin; school closures are cutting off families’ access to child care and students’ access to meals. Yet Trump initially criticized a House relief bill that would offer free coronavirus testing, paid sick and family leave and food assistance — measures that would protect those most vulnerable to the disease.
It’s possible that the coronavirus will permanently alter the way we view this industry. By Friday, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, MSC Cruises and Carnival all announced that they were suspending their operations for at least a month. But, until very recently, at least one cruise line tried to lure passengers with false promises about warm air killing the virus, according to the Miami New Times. And spring breakers and other tourists have still been buying tickets, refusing to defer their much-awaited getaways. As one prospective passenger told the Daily Beast, “At least I wouldn’t have to cook.”