Why coronavirus is an ethical minefield

The number of the novel coronavirus cases on Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined in Yokohama, Japan, doubled in one day, making it the worst-hit place by the virus outside mainland China. CNN’s Matt Rivers reports.

The term “cruise ship” evokes images of luxury and well-being, but that is far from what a dream vacation has become for thousands of passengers now trapped on several cruise ships by the sudden emergence of the Wuhan coronavirus.

We’ve been hearing from passengers, but the most recent cry for help comes from crew members of the Diamond Princess, docked in Yokohama, Japan, with passengers and crew trapped — without any semblance of luxury or comfort — in what is probably history’s largest floating quarantine vessel. Some 3,700 people aboard remain forcibly quartered; at least 135 passengers have tested positive for the virus.

Crew members, forced to continue working, are pleading. “We are extremely scared,” said Binay Kumar Sakar in a video obtained by CNN. That was before this ship became part prison, part hospital, part Twilight Zone luxury resort. Employees say the requirement that they work, interacting with potentially infected passengers, leaves them utterly unprotected; several workers have already become infected. CNN has reached out to Princess Cruises for comment. Their fear is particularly resonant across an industry which, as a whole, has long been known for in the past exploiting some of its workers.

Among the passengers, some say they are tolerating the confinement fairly well, but it’s hard to imagine what enduring this experience is like for people in the less luxurious interior cabins. A ship’s “state rooms,” as they are called, tend to be small. The ones without a view of the sea and with more limited space must be a nightmare of claustrophobia.

Is this the best way to deal with a viral outbreak?

The highly contagious virus is a minefield of ethical, political and moral dilemmas. That it emerged in China, a country ruled by an authoritarian, politically-repressive regime, wrapped the crisis in a uniquely chilling atmosphere.

Governments, public health experts and private firms are trying to figure out how to respond to the crisis; much of the response appears improvised. On Tuesday, the World Health Organization said that the virus presents a “grave threat” to the world and “one clinical trial is already on the way” in China in an attempt to find a cure; the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also offered experts Tuesday to help study the virus in China. But many aboard cruise ships remain in limbo.

The complaints of the Diamond Princess crew point to the risks of the current lockdown approach aboard these ships. Crew members are not trained as health care workers. Passenger ships are not meant to be quarantine areas. They are not designed or equipped for this purpose. Their employees did not sign up for this type of work. Passengers should be permitted to disembark and safely move to a different facility, on firm ground, where they can be tested; where the necessary supplies are on hand; where the staff is doing the work for which they were trained.

This virus has unsurprisingly created a multitude of tough decisions.

From the moment we learned that a new virus was causing thousands of people in China to become ill, it became apparent that this would be more than a simple illness of concern only to health experts and residents of the most affected areas. This virus is much more, for many more.

China’s decision to put nearly 60 million people under lockdown in and around Wuhan is unprecedented and highly controversial. When a local doctor, Li Wenliang, tried to raise the alarm in December, authorities detained him and accused him of spreading rumors. He died of the virus last week. Then a citizen journalist, Chen Qiushi, providing critical reporting from Wuhan, suddenly disappeared. Another citizen journalist was reportedly arrested on Monday amid reports of a growing number of arrests for criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis.

But it’s not just China’s response that has raised questions. Whenever a contagion becomes so serious that the word “quarantine” becomes part of the discussions, the ethical cost of such prevention casts a shadow on every decision.

Quarantine is a frontal assault on freedom. It literally deprives individuals of their liberties for the sake of the larger community, raising countless difficult questions.

How much power should authorities have over the daily lives of individuals? How much should individuals sacrifice for the sake of the community? How far should the state go in enforcing restrictions? Should people go to jail for violating a confinement to which they are forced because of no fault of their own? What to do when someone becomes ill on a ship holding thousands of healthy passengers? If you decide to keep the passengers on board, who will bring their food? How will they be protected?

The cruise industry is undoubtedly taking a financial hit with vessels in the news and passengers who were supposed to be enjoying a trip of a lifetime enduring prolonged confinement.

As a result, some companies are responding with measures that appear driven more by prejudice than prevention. Royal Caribbean has announced that it will — reasonably — deny boarding to anyone who traveled through China in the past two weeks. Less reasonably, it was for a time barring any holder of passports from China, Hong Kong or Macau, regardless of whether they had set foot in those locations.

The virus, and the intensive media attention it is receiving, have spurred an outbreak of fear and prejudice and, quite predictably, an avalanche of bigotry in many countries, and a torrent of conspiracy theories, including from government officials who should know better.

The knee jerk reaction is to lock away anyone who might have become infected and push away anyone perceived, however unfairly, to pose a risk.

The problem of prejudice is so severe that two months into the crisis public health authorities had not been able to come up with a name for the virus. The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses is struggling with the challenge. To prevent the stigma, the naming committee wants to avoid a name that includes a geographical location, a culture, industry, name, animal or food. Without an officially recognized name, many call it the Wuhan virus, while authorities temporarily went with Novel Coronavirus or NcV-2019. Finally on Tuesday, with more than 42,000 cases diagnosed, the WHO named it “COVID-19.”

It is a virus that is having an impact that goes beyond public health. It will not only reverberate across the global economic and political landscape, but it is already the source of moral and ethical questions.

Warehousing passengers and crew on a ship is not a responsible solution. Workers who did not sign up for quarantine duty should be let off the ship, moved along with the rest of those on board to a more suitable facility.