(This article has been updated. It was earlier published on February 11, 2020)
Coronavirus epidemic has taken an ugly turn even as the virus seems to have taken grip of passengers and the crew at Cruise ship Diamond Princess. Many Indians are stranded in ship which has now registered the largest number of Coronavirus cases outside of China. There are an unspecified number of Indians among the 3,711 passengers, crew on Board the quarantined ship. They have already sought the help of the government in rescuing them.
The Cruise ship had arrived at the Japanese coast early last week and was quarantined after a passenger, who de-boarded from the Cruise ship at Hong Kong last month was found to be the carrier of Coronavirus. Initially, 70 people had tested positive for the novel virus and now the number has gone up to 220 on February 14, 2020. Three Indians aboard the Diamond Princess have been diagnosed with the virus as the ship continues to remain docked and quarantined at the Japanese coast.
The Indian Embassy in Japan tweeted, “Many Indian crew & some Indian passengers are onboard the cruise ship #DiamondPrincess quarantined off Japan due to #Coronavirus (#nCoV). In this context, any query please contact First Secretary (Consular) @IndianEmbTokyo at email@example.com @CPVIndia @MEAIndia @PMOIndia.”
Many Indian crew & some Indian passengers are onboard the cruise ship #DiamondPrincess quarantined off Japan due to #Coronavirus (#nCoV). In this context, any query please contact First Secretary (Consular) @IndianEmbTokyo at firstname.lastname@example.org @CPVIndia @MEAIndia @PMOIndia
— India in Japanインド大使館 (@IndianEmbTokyo) February 10, 2020
Cruise ships offer perfect conditions for a viral disaster. With people from various regions of the globe travelling together as passengers or as crew on Board such cruise ships, there is a risk of exponential rise in the number of those infected by the virus on a global level. Take Diamond Princess, for instance, people from 56 different countries are on board the quarantined cruise ship.
Then the commercialisation of the ships has led to cramped, closed and crowded scenes on the Cruise ships, which leads to the passengers and crew coming into close contact with each other. It becomes that much more easy for unaffected individuals to contract the virus from those who are carrying the novel virus. It is nothing short of a nightmare to imagine the conditions inside the quarantined cruise ship which poses the risk of spreading the Coronavirus like wildfire in Japan.
In fact, historically ships have been the biggest culprits when it comes to the spread of viruses and communicable diseases. Bubonic Plague in Europe (commonly known as Black Death) is probably the most well-known example of how ships have been one of the biggest sources when it comes to spreading deadly diseases.
The Black Death had struck Europe in the 14th century when 12 “death ships” arrived from the Black Sea had docked at the Sicilian port of Messina.
Those who had gathered on the docks witnessed a horrifying, heart-wrenching sight. Most of the sailors onboard these ships were dead. Those who survived were in a horrifying condition- gravely ill and covered with black boils from which blood and pus oozed out.
The Sicilian authorities did order the removal of “death ships” from the dock, but it was but too late by then. Over the next five years, the plague proved to be a deadly killer in Europe accounting for the death of more than 20 million people in Europe, effectively wiping out one-third of the continent’s total population.
Apart from the Black Death in Europe, the Columbian Exchange is a big example of how shipping can contribute to the spread of deadly diseases and infections.
The arrival of Europeans in America had brought along with it the Columbian Exchange, the largest part of biological globalisation that emerged out of transoceanic voyaging in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Oceanic shipping suddenly brought regions separated by continental drift together. Christopher Columbus’s voyages had far-reaching global consequences. Apart from their bringing technologies and lifestyles, the European settlers brought their diseases.
Arguably, the most deadly effect of the Columbian Exchange was the arrival and spread deadly diseases that were a necessary corollary of the Exchange.
Numerous diseases were brought to North America, including measles, smallpox, influenza, mumps, typhus, bubonic plague, chickenpox, cholera, the common cold, scarlet fever, typhoid, tuberculosis, pertussis, sexually transmitted diseases and whooping cough.
In most places, except isolated villages, these diseases acquired the shape of epidemics. Turning into endemic childhood diseases, such epidemics killed one-fourth to one-half of all children up to the age of six years. These diseases, coupled with wars with the white man, wiped out a large part of the native population in North America.
The population decrease had led to labour shortages, which ultimately paved the way for the establishment of African slavery on a mammoth scale in the Americas. Hence, by 1650, Yellow fever and Falciparum malaria had also entered the Americas from Africa through the Atlantic.
The Europeans who carried such infections either possessed them in a dormant state or were not adequately quarantined, which allowed such infections to take the shape of epidemics in Americas wiping out a great proportion of the Native American population. These diseases were rarely fatal in the case of Europeans as they had developed immunity to these diseases.
However, their arrival in the Americas had exposed the Native Americans to novel infections, against which they had absolutely no immunity. It is difficult to lay down correctly the extent to which these diseases affected the Native Americans, but it is estimated that 80 per cent of the Native Americans had perished to the deadly, European diseases.
The spread of deadly diseases out of the Columbian Exchange was largely unilateral. However, it is also argued by some that the trade of Native American captives led to the spread of venereal syphilis epidemic in Europe in the late 15th century.
History is a testimony to how transoceanic voyaging and ships have been some of the biggest causes behind the deadliest of epidemics. It is in this context that the quarantined Diamond Princess comes as a matter of grave concern.
More than 130 out of 3,711 individuals on board have already tested positive. The ratio reveals that the sheer vulnerability of those travelling on cruise ships. With thousands of people from diverse regions of the globe travelling in close, cramped up spaces, a single Coronavirus carrier can cause an upheaval, a viral disaster with a spiralling global effect.