Some of the opinions expressed in this article can be attributed to Virginia Postrel, an opinion columnist for Bloomberg.
Viruses and cruise ships are not a particularly good mix, as we are now all well aware. With the world struggling in the grip of the rapidly-spreading Covid-19, public gatherings and crowded places have become the things to avoid.
Paranoia rules the roost, with panic, fear and worry at its heels. Where is safe? Who is safe to touch, see or associate with? Beyond religious hand-washing and mask-wearing, is there anything else we can do?
The virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, in December last year, has currently infected more than 139,000 people and affected 133 countries and territories in every continent except Antarctica. To date, more than 5,100 people have died from the disease. On Wednesday (March 11), the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the Covid-19 outbreak as a “pandemic”, prompting countries to widen their travel bans and advisories, declare stricter quarantine rules and implement new measures.
People are panicking — toilet paper, canned goods and other necessities are flying off the shelves in supermarkets in cities all across the world — but how many are changing their daily habits?
I was in London last weekend, and besides a few masked commuters and some signs alerting people of the Covid-19 outbreak and how to minimise its spread, I didn’t observe much difference in people’s behaviour.
Personally, I had my mask and gloves on and refrained from touching my face after touching door handles, stair railings and the like. I also had my hand sanitiser at the ready. While I was also armed with toilet paper and hand soap in my bag — I’m from the Philippines and we don’t expect public toilets to have them — I didn’t have to use them as the bathrooms in London are all well-equipped.
While our news feeds are inundated with breaking updates of new cases of infection and fatalities all over the world, reality doesn’t seem to have changed that much.
In one underground (subway) ride that lasted no more than 15 minutes, I witnessed three passengers sneezing without covering their mouths and noses: One sneezed in the direction of the window, another aimed his sneeze at the floor and a third sneezed into her handbag, a sight at which I physically cringed. I won’t even go into detail about those picking their noses and then wiping their hands on the seats, walls, and you name it.
On a cruise ship, however, things would be different. The outbreak has already infected passengers on two cruise ships — the Diamond Princess in Yokohama, Japan, out of which 696 cases and seven fatalities have occurred, and the Grand Princess, which is currently docked in Oakland, California, and is letting passengers down for quarantine. So far, the ship has more than 21 infected passengers, and one person has died.
Virginia Postrel of Bloomberg wrote that she was sailing on another Princess Cruise ship in mid-February when the news of the coronavirus infections on board the Diamond Princess broke. She noted that the fear of infection acted as a catalyst. People quickly changed their habits, like conscientiously washing and sanitising their hands and personal items, and amended behaviours, such as using their elbows to push buttons or touch door handles.
Some even started offering their fists (fist-bump style) instead of their hands when introducing themselves, to avoid the spread of germs. “We were, after all, on a cruise ship,” said Postrel.
“On a cruise, you start paying attention to washing your hands properly. Signs in all the bathrooms, including your cabin’s, remind you to wash with soap for at least 20 seconds before rinsing thoroughly. Hand-washing stations and sanitizer dispensers greet you on entering the buffet,” wrote Postrel.
At the time, Covid-19 had not yet been declared a global pandemic, but cruise ship-goers seemed more cautious than others.
Why? Because, “like college dormitories and military barracks, ships crowded with tourists are great incubators of disease”. Think about it, all those people, stuck on one ship. There’s nowhere to go. You are forced into better, more hygienic habits if you want to stay uninfected.
Other cruise ships have fallen prey to contagious viruses. Recently, a norovirus outbreak, which caused vomiting and diarrhoea, forced a Princess Cruise in the Caribbean to end a day early.
“With all those nudges, and the sight of other passengers conscientiously washing their hands, I developed better habits,” confessed Postrel.
“Rather than a perfunctory soap and rinse, I really did count out 20 seconds, and made sure to get the backs of my hands and between my fingers. I washed my hands after blowing my nose and when I used the bathroom in the middle of the night. Never mind the coronavirus, I didn’t want to spend my vacation throwing up,” she wrote.
The question is pretty simple, as Postrel posed: “Why don’t we act this way all the time?”
“Taking a half minute to wash your hands with soap is a trivial act that costs next to nothing, yet almost no one does it. We’d all be better off if it became a habit,” she said.
Even before Covid-19, thorough hand-washing has always been one of the first things that aid in the prevention of the spread of disease.
The Cleveland Clinic notes that those who “perform proper hand-washing have lower rates of diarrhoea, viral infections (like the common cold) and food-borne illnesses”.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also said that “proper hand-washing also reduces kids’ absenteeism at school from gastrointestinal illnesses by at least 29 per cent”.
As Postrel said, pandemics can dramatically change people’s everyday habits. If you think about it, the world is no different from a cruise ship, really. We’re all on it together, stuck together to face this battle with the Covid-19 outbreak. We need to start behaving like we’re on a cruise ship — maybe it’ll save us.
We might not be able to stop this virus outbreak, but we can certainly act with more urgency. /TISG