Mother Jones

CRUISE CONTROL

If Donald Trump could build a city from scratch, it would have a casino and a golf course and all the cheeseburgers you could eat. The city’s residents would be old, with money to spend and nothing but free time. The workers would be poor, foreign, and always on the clock. They would literally live beneath you. There would be doctors, but not very many, and there would be cops, sort of, but who exactly they were there to protect and serve would remain ambiguous. There would be no proper government to speak of. The city and its services would be run by a corporation, and you would sign away your rights to a billionaire in his 70s with a tan and bad hair, in exchange for a promise of a good time—art auctions, live music, waterfalls of champagne. The city would pay no taxes but avail itself of the services funded by those who do.

It would look, in other words, a lot like the Carnival Corporation’s 18-story, 952-foot-long Diamond Princess as it entered Yokohama Bay in early February after a voyage through Southeast Asia for the Chinese New Year. Some people would find this city tacky. But it would be an altogether pleasant place for many people, much of the time. However, you would not want to be there during a pandemic.

As the cruise approached port, the coronavirus was confined almost entirely to the Chinese city of Wuhan. Trump’s top public health concern was vaping. But on February 1, a passenger who had disembarked from the Diamond Princess tested positive for the virus. Three days later, passengers quarantined. While customers took their meals in their cabins, the vessel’s crew—more than 1,000 people from 48 countries—continued to go about their work. The number of cases onboard would ultimately grow to 712, and 14 people would die. The ship, flying the flag of the United Kingdom and owned by a company—registered in Panama—that’s chaired by one of the richest men in Miami, saw the first major outbreak of COVID-19 outside of Wuhan.

The pandemic has penetrated nearly every corner of the globe. It has burned through nursing homes and choir practices. It has preyed on the elderly and the immunocompromised, people without access to reliable health care, and the young and perfectly healthy who never saw it coming. It’s killed more than 100,000 people in the United States in big cities and small towns. But for several weeks, before life as we know it shut down, you could turn on CNN and watch your own dismal future, adrift at sea.

After the went into lockdown, the pattern played out on dozens of other cruise ships—sometimes weeks after it was clear that these vessels were sitting ducks. The (owned by Carnival subsidiary Costa Cruises) was waylaid off of France. The (owned by Princess Cruises—also Carnival) detoured to Oakland. The (part of Holland America, a.k.a. Carnival) floated aimlessly for days while Florida’s governor debated whether he would accept its passengers.

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