61 coronavirus cases on ship, Indian crew in quarantine: ‘We are in fear…we want to leave’

Ravik Bhattacharya
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Officials enter Diamond Princess to transfer a patient to hospital in Yokohama, Japan. (Reuters)

A resident of West Bengal who is among several Indian crew members onboard a luxury cruise currently quarantined near Yokohama port, Japan, with 61 confirmed cases of coronavirus, has appealed to Indian authorities for help, saying the infection on board the ship is spreading. The 30-year-old belonging to Hatipa village in Uttar Dinajpur district has also put up videos on social media, reaching out to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, urging them to get the Japanese government to separately quarantine those infected and uninfected on board the Diamond Princess.

In one of his social media posts, the 30-year-old said, “We are in fear. We are nearly 200 Indian crew on board. We have not tested positive. We want to disembark and be properly quarantined.” He said he was speaking directly, breaking protocol, because he was scared. “If I do not speak out, tomorrow I don’t know if I will be alive or dead,” he said in Hindi.

He told The Indian Express over WhatsApp, “Plz help us. All crew r waiting for our Govt response. They have rescued Indian citizens from Wuhan city in China, then why not rescue us from Japan? We can be kept in quarantine in India. India and Japan have good relations.”

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Officers in protective gear enter the cruise ship Diamond Princess, Japan. (Reuters)

The Japanese government said Friday that 61 people on board the ship, with more than 3,700 passengers, had tested positive, and an additional 41 were found to have contracted the virus. Japanese authorities have so far tested 273 people, who were either showing symptoms or had been in close contact with those who did. The ship, which left Hong Kong port on January 25, was quarantined for 14 days after a person who disembarked in Hong Kong last month was diagnosed with the virus. “Today they (the infected) will be sent to hospitals in several prefectures, and we are preparing for that,” a Health Ministry statement said.

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The newly diagnosed include 21 Japanese, as well as Americans, Canadians, Australians, an Argentine and a Briton. Twenty people earlier diagnosed have already been removed from the vessel, including one in serious condition, a Health Ministry official said. Passengers have been asked to stay inside their cabins to prevent new infections. Those in windowless cabins are allowed only onto open decks, but briefly and under strict conditions, including wearing a mask at all times.

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A woman holds a Japanese flag that reads "shortage of medicine" on the cruise ship Diamond Princess. (Reuters)

On Friday evening, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar tweeted that they are monitoring the developments closely. “Many Indian crew & some Indian passengers are onboard the cruise ship #DiamondPrincess quarantined off Japan due to #Coronavirus. None have tested positive, as per the latest information provided by our Embassy,” he said.

Reaching out to the PM directly, the 30-year-old crew member said, “Modiji sent Air India flight to a city in China to evacuate Indians. This is Indian culture... Please Modiji, you can do something. The Wing Commander (Abhinandan Varthaman) returned from Pakistan because of you. Modiji is my idol.”

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He said around 1,045 crew members ate together in the mess, and the infection could spread there. “I was scheduled to return home on February 17, but now I do not know when. My family is waiting.”

The ship’s captain said in an announcement on Friday morning, “Quarantine officials require that you avoid congregating in large groups and maintain separation of at least one metre from each other when talking... We require that you wear as a minimum, warm clothing, hat and a scarf if possible.”

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The cruise ship Diamond Princess, where 10 more people were tested positive for coronavirus on Thursday, is seen at Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama, south of Tokyo, Japan. (Reuters)

The cruise company posted on Twitter: “The Japanese ministry of health has confirmed the #DiamondPrincess quarantine end date will be February 19, unless there are other unforeseen developments... We understand and empathise with many of our guests, crew and their families across the world during this ever evolving situation. Thank you for your continued patience during the challenging time.”
Video footage showed blue and white tarpaulin put up on the Diamond Princess to screen passengers from view as those diagnosed with the virus were moved out to hospitals.

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The 30-year-old’s mother said they had come to know what had happened from his social media posts, before he called up. Urging Modi and Banerjee to help, she said, “We are in shock. This is a killer disease and is spreading fast on the ship and I do not know what my son will do or if he will come home alive. The Chief Minister and Prime Minister should help not only my son but others who are stuck on the ship.”

His brother, speaking over the phone from Siliguri, said he was in touch with the 30-year-old. “They are all very scared. In the ship, there is a high chance of the infection spreading. We have written to the Bengal government and also talked to BJP MPs in Raigunj and Darjeeling, who have promised help.”

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West Bengal officials said they had contacted the Japanese Embassy. Said State Forest Minister Rajib Banerjee, “We have got a report on the condition of the Indian crew members. I am aware of social media posts of the man. We have asked the Japan Embassy to immediately take steps.”

The younger of two brothers, the 30-year-old studied hotel management. He started working as a crew member on luxury ships 10 years ago, and joined Diamond Princess two years ago.