TOKYO -- Crew members from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was kept under quarantine in the port of Yokohama following an outbreak of the new coronavirus on board, have begun returning home after disembarking from the vessel for a period of observed isolation that started at the end of February.
Among them, two crew members who tested negative for the virus spoke to the Mainichi Shimbun about their experiences aboard. They said that crew members had been exhausted by the events, and that their daily duties exposed them to potential infection. But they also said they enjoyed being on ships, and that they wanted to return to their work.
One of the crew members, a woman in her 20s who worked in the ship's dining section, was shocked over how far the virus had spread in Japan and across the world when she left her observation facility at the National Tax College in Wako, Saitama Prefecture, on March 14.
According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, crew members began leaving the Diamond Princess over a week after passengers, starting from Feb. 27. Some 240 of them were then transported to the National Tax College, and all of them were expected to be released by March 16.
Another crew member, also a woman in her 20s, worked at the cruise's telephone help desk for passengers. The ship was stopped and quarantined from Feb. 3, and passengers were instructed not to leave their rooms, meaning that from about Feb. 5 onward the phones rang continuously.
The woman developed a sore throat and a persistent cough. About a week into the measures, medicine for crew members ran dry due to a policy of prioritizing passengers. She reported that a crew member could be seen by a medical professional only once they developed a fever of 37.5 degrees Celsius or higher.
Looking back on the situation now, she said, "Crew with coughs should have been isolated from the start, but they worked." Additionally, staff worked up to 13 hours a day, including attending to passengers who may have had the virus.
According to the woman who worked in the ship's dining area, around 30 of the crew members assigned to her department were gradually put into isolation, bringing down personnel numbers to around half of their usual amount. Hand sanitizer was replaced with stronger medical-use items, and the number of seats was instructed to be reduced by half to ensure a set distance between people.
She said that she "felt more resignation than fear." The Grand Princess, another cruise vessel managed by the U.S. firm Princess Cruise Lines, was put into quarantine after a case of group infection of the new coronavirus was detected on board. But following criticism of the isolation measures Japan put in place on the Diamond Princess, passengers were let off the Grand Princess more quickly.
"As long as people are in the same environment, crew members will have the same risk as or a greater risk than passengers of being infected. People shouldn't be made to continue working in these conditions," she said.
The crew member who worked on the phones said, "I understand that I have to put myself in a certain level of danger at work for the sake of the passengers, but I wish treatment had been given for my colleagues and others who exhausted themselves for those on board."
She added, "People from the ministry of health came one after another, but they all kept asking us the same questions, and it was questionable whether our information was being shared with the appropriate people."
Both women intend to spend a period resting under the care of their families, but they both also said they wanted to return to working on cruises and the Diamond Princess, and that they would like to work with their colleagues from around the world again.
Yoshihito Niki, a specially appointed professor at Showa University School of Medicine who specializes in clinical infectious diseases, said, "The national government should have dispatched interpreters and other professionals to deal with the situation on the ship. It's very likely that the virus spread among crew members, who did not have private living spaces, and who were being relied on to handle the crisis. There was not enough consideration for these people working under harsh conditions."
(Japanese original by Yujiro Futamura, City News Department)