TOKYO: Hundreds of passengers trundled off a cruise ship in Japan on Wednesday after being held on board in quarantine for more than two weeks, as criticism mounted of Japan’s handling of the biggest coronavirus outbreak outside China.
Even as passengers rolled their luggage off the Diamond Princess cruise liner, Japanese authorities announced 79 new cases had been discovered on board, bringing the total above 620, well over half of the known cases outside mainland China.
In China itself, the death toll from the coronavirus climbed above 2,000, but the tally of newly reported cases fell for a second day to the lowest since January, offering hope and helping Asian shares and US stock futures rise.
China is struggling to get its economy back on track after imposing severe travel restrictions to contain a virus that emerged in the central province of Hubei late last year.
Beyond mainland China, six people have died from the disease, and governments around the world are trying to prevent it from spreading into a global epidemic.
The Diamond Princess has been quarantined at a dock at Yokohama near Tokyo since Feb 3, initially with 3,700 people aboard. The rapid spread of the disease on board led to criticism of the Japanese authorities just months before Japan is due to host the Olympics.
From Wednesday, passengers who tested negative and showed no symptoms were free to leave. Around 500 were expected to disembark on Wednesday, with the rest of those eligible leaving over the next two days. Confirmed cases were to be sent to hospital, while those who shared cabins with infected passengers may still be kept on board.
Around half of the passengers and crew are Japanese, and are free to go home once cleared to leave. Other countries have said they will fly passengers home and quarantine them on arrival. The United States flew more than 300 passengers to air bases in California and Texas this week.
“I am very keen to get off this ship,” Australian passenger Vicki Presland said over a social-media link. She was among a group of Australians getting off to catch an evacuation flight back to 14 days of quarantine in the city of Darwin.
Matthew Smith, an American passenger who remained on board after declining the US evacuation earlier this week, tweeted video of passengers departing with their suitcases.
“Captain wishes ‘Arrivederci’ to the guests departing the ship today but omits his usual ‘Buon Appetito’ to those of us who are still awaiting our fates. Hey, what are we - chopped liver?!” he wrote.
Infectious disease specialist Kentaro Iwata of Japan’s Kobe University Hospital, who volunteered to help aboard the ship, described the infection control effort on board as “completely inadequate” and said basic protocols had not been followed.
“There was no single professional infection control person inside the ship and there was nobody in charge of infection prevention as a professional. The bureaucrats were in charge of everything,” he said in a YouTube video. Health Minister Katsunobu Kato defended Japan’s efforts.
“Unfortunately, cases of infection have emerged, but we have to the extent possible taken appropriate steps to prevent serious cases,” Kato said in a report by state broadcaster NHK.
Published in Dawn, February 20th, 2020