Thousands quarantined on Asian cruise ships in virus fight

Members of the Hong Kong Department of Health wearing protective gear queue up to clean their hands on the deck of the World Dream cruise ship, docked at the Kai Tak cruise terminal in Hong Kong on February 5, 2020.
Members of the Hong Kong Department of Health wearing protective gear queue up to clean their hands on the deck of the World Dream cruise ship, docked at the Kai Tak cruise terminal in Hong Kong on February 5, 2020.
Image: Philip FONG / AFP

Thousands of people were stranded aboard two cruise ships in Asia on Thursday, quarantined by officials desperate to stem the spread of a deadly virus that has killed hundreds in China and spread panic worldwide.

At least 20 people on board one ocean liner off the Japanese coast have tested positive for the new coronavirus, with thousands more facing two weeks of isolation.

The outbreak on the vessel, whose 3,700 passengers and crew hail from over 50 countries, is the latest development in a snowballing global health emergency that has left more than 560 people dead, most of them in China.

In Hong Kong, 3,600 people spent the night confined aboard the cruise ship World Dream as authorities conducted health checks after three former passengers tested positive for the virus.

Since emerging from central China in December the virus has killed 563 people and infected over 24,000 more,  including a few hundred outside the mainland.

The World Health Organization, which has declared the outbreak a global health emergency, on Wednesday appealed for $675 million to fight the virus.

In Japan, more than 3,700 people were confined to quarters aboard the Diamond Princess, which has been held off the port city of Yokohama since Monday night.

Authorities decided to quarantine the ship and test hundreds on board after a former passenger who disembarked in Hong Kong last month tested positive for the virus.

Health Minister Katsunobu Kato told parliament on Thursday that results for 102 people had now come in, with 20 testing positive.

In all some 273 people on board were tested, including those who had close contact with the former passenger and others displaying potential symptoms.

Ten people diagnosed with the new virus have already been removed from the ship, which on Thursday docked in Yokohama to resupply for a quarantine that could last until February 19.

Ambulances arrived at the port, where officials could be seen dressed in white protective suits, complete with face masks and helmets, to remove the additional 10 infected people.

'Almost unbearable' 

Passengers took to social media to document their confinement, with one posting audio of an announcement on the ship promising better internet and room service.

"The crew are working extremely hard for you," the announcement in English said.

"Masks will be delivered to your state rooms as we are negotiating with the Japanese quarantine officials to allow small groups of guests to spend some time on the open decks to get some fresh air."

British passenger David Abel uploaded a series of videos on his Facebook page, jokingly asking the captain to send him some whisky and requesting a banana a day from room service.

"It's a horrible situation for most passengers onboard, being stuck here, confined to the cabin," he said, sympathising especially with those with inside rooms.

"It must be almost unbearable for them."

City health officials in Hong Kong said passengers would only be allowed off the World Dream after tests were completed, with crew checked first and passengers to be screened on Thursday.

Panic buyers in the city descended on supermarkets to snap up toilet rolls as the government warned that online rumours of shortages were hampering the city's fight against the virus.

On Wednesday, city authorities announced anyone arriving from the Chinese mainland from Saturday would face a mandatory two-week quarantine.

Two dozen countries now have confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus that emerged from a Wuhan market selling exotic animals at the end of last year.

China is struggling with a shortage of hospital beds, equipment and materials to treat those infected, despite building two hospitals from scratch and converting public buildings to house patients.

'Don't go out!' 

Tens of millions across the mainland have been told to stay indoors as authorities battle to curb the outbreak.

In parts of Hangzhou, 175 kilometres (110 miles) from Shanghai, only one person per household is allowed outside every two days.

"Please don't go out. Don't go out. Don't go out!" blared a message on a loudspeaker urging people to wear masks, wash their hands regularly and report any people from Hubei.

Several governments have imposed travel restrictions over the virus, while major airlines have suspended flights to and from China.

Italy announced that passengers on every international flight would be scanned for fever, while Taiwan Thursday banned all international cruise ships from docking.

China has reacted angrily to the travel bans, noting that the WHO does not advise imposing them.

Health experts note that the mortality rate of the new virus, at around two percent, is well below that of SARS, which killed 800 people in 2002-2003, around 10 percent of those infected.

Two fatalities have been reported outside the mainland, in Hong Kong and the Philippines.

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