Is it Fair to Blame the Japanese Government for the Covid-19 Cases on the Diamond Princess?

The cruise ship Diamond Princess has the dubious distinction of being the only non-country or territory on the World Health Organization’s situation report of areas with confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths. It also has the highest number of recorded cases of coronavirus outside of China.

Unfortunately for Japan, through no fault of its own, the ship happened to be docked on Japanese territorial waters, off the port of Yokohama. On this basis, the Japanese government is taking the flak for the perceived blunders in managing quarantine measures and attending to the medical and other needs of the passengers. At last count, there were 705 confirmed cases and six deaths from the ship.

Censure and criticisms flew fast and thick – from media and medical experts.

A New York Times report alleged that Japan imposed a quarantine of the ship more than three days after it received the notification of COVID-19. It was the company that owns the ill-fated ship that announced the official confirmation of the disease on board and consequently started the 14-day isolation.

But did the NYT, an acclaimed print and digital newspaper, bother to check the reasons behind the Japanese government’s delay? The Quarantine Act of the United Nations, of which Japan is a member, dictates that the Quarantine Authority has the power to, among others, regulate ship arrivals and departures if public safety is at stake. It would be a breach of international protocol if Tokyo meddles in “overseas” affairs without the consent of the UN.

The Diamond Princess, although docked in Yokohama Japan, is owned by Princess Cruises, a subsidiary of Carnival Corporation & plc, an American company with headquarters in California. It is incorporated in Bermuda, a British Island. So it’s ironic that US government officials and public health specialists are quick to discredit the efforts of Japan Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s administration, calling the quarantine unjustified, a violation of the passengers’ human rights, insufficient, and a failure.

But, for all the racket they made criticizing Japan, the US government would not even allow its own citizens on board the cruise ship to enter American soil. It was only on Feb. 16, about 12 days after the quarantine of the Diamond Princess started, that two US planes evacuated 380 of its citizens and took them back to their homeland. Those possibly infected and 40 who tested positive for COVID-19 were left behind to be treated in Japan hospitals.

PM Abe’s generosity in accepting foreign nationals into their country’s medical institutions because their own country would not accept them until they were cured is not surprising. When the coronavirus broke out in Wuhan, China, even before the WHO declared it as a global emergency, the Japanese government sent an All Nippon Airways chartered flight on Jan. 28 to repatriate Japanese nationals who were then in the epicenter of the virus outbreak. All in all, 799 nationals and their families have been evacuated on five ANA flights. They were also tested for the virus upon arrival in Japan to determine their status. This incident contributed to the scarcity of COVID-19 test kits to test virus samples, in which foreign media played up.

In contrast, many American passengers on board the Diamond Princess were seething mad at their government for taking so long to evacuate them. UK passengers were also frustrated with their government’s handling of them. These two Western countries co-own the Princess Cruises. Yet they are leaving it to the Japanese government to deal with the crisis on the ship.

What escapes the minds of many pundits are the 20,000 masks, 30,000 protective suits and a staff member from a nonprofit organization that were on board the flight to Wuhan that evacuated the Japanese nationals. These were donations from local government units in the land of the Rising Sun. On the Diamond Princess, eight Japanese government workers who helped in the ship’s quarantine measures have since tested positive for the virus.

The United States’ offer of help came in the form of a team of experts from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention to go to China to observe the coronavirus disease. However, Beijing ignored the offer.

The measures undertaken for quarantine inside the cruise ship also came under heavy criticism.

Even after confirmation that a COVID-19 infected man was on the ship and came in contact with passengers and crew, a slew of social activities went on. Karaoke, dancing and large buffet meals kept the passengers and crew in close contact with each other.

The hapless crew that numbered 1,045, consisting mostly of Filipinos, Indians, and Indonesians, had to keep on working to serve the passengers. They delivered food, medicines and other supplies to the passengers confined to their rooms. Without protective gear, they were exposed to infected passengers and other crew members. The crew shared toilets and living quarters and ate their meals together.

Although Japanese officials have admitted lapses in handling the outbreak, it must be remembered that the coronavirus tragedy was a fast-evolving disease and a new one. No policies, treatments, and interventions were in place. The ship, too, was not designed to be a medical facility and was not appropriately equipped to deal with an epidemic.

Health minister Katsunobu Kato acknowledged his ministry’s error in allowing 23 passengers who had tested negative of the virus to disembark after which no follow-ups were made.

But the Japanese government cannot be fully faulted for the intermingling among crew and passengers, and the continued work of crew members to serve the guests. The company of the ship, Princess Cruises, should have ensured the safety of their employees by providing them with protective suits, masks, and sanitizers, and isolated the infected or exposed staff.

They should have halted regular social activities instead of covering up the outbreak and withholding information from their clients.

Not all criticism came from foreign media and medical specialists though. In the hometown, Toru Tamagawa accused PM Abe of expanding the COVID-19 crisis to implement constitutional change. Another local, Kentaro Iwata, an infectious disease specialist and professor at Kobe University, denounced the “chaotic” and “scary” state of the ship when he went to visit it as part of a team.

Be that as it may, it’s still unfair to heap all the blame on the Japanese government when the main control and authority for the Diamond Princess belongs to a US and UK company. Has nobody thought to question why the company and the countries’ respective governments are not doing enough to protect the passengers and crew and to safeguard the health of the global community?