All passengers and crew members of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which has been anchored at the Port of Yokohama, have disembarked.
In the wake of the prolonged chaotic situation on the vessel, six of the passengers have died in Japan so far, while a number of others have developed fever and other symptoms since leaving the ship. The government must examine its response to the developments aboard the cruise ship and use its findings in its infectious disease control measures in the future.
The cruise ship arrived at the port on Feb. 3. The government faced the unprecedented task of quarantining a large ship carrying about 3,700 people after a passenger who disembarked in Hong Kong in late January was later confirmed to have contracted the new coronavirus.
Registered in Britain and operated by a U.S. company, the cruise ship carried passengers and crew from 56 countries and regions. Under international law, Japan has no authority to take infectious disease control measures for a ship on the high seas, nor does it have an obligation to allow a ship to enter a Japanese port.
However, considering that the Diamond Princess had called at Yokohama for a cruise with more than 1,000 Japanese on board, it can be said that the government made a reasonable decision not to bar the vessel from the port and to quarantine the ship.
The government initially planned to disembark the passengers, but eventually told them to remain in their cabins from Feb. 5 after more infection cases were confirmed aboard the ship.
Even though the government insisted it was “effective” to quarantine the passengers in their rooms, it is difficult to say that the measure really worked, given the fact that a large number of passengers were later found to have become infected after it was implemented.
Japan needs own CDC
Furthermore, various issues have emerged, with some of the passengers who were allowed to disembark starting Feb. 19 having failed to undergo tests before leaving the vessel. Some of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry officials who provided support aboard the ship were also found to have contracted the virus.
A doctor who boarded the ship for a short time posted a public online video, criticizing measures implemented on the Diamond Princess. Amid insufficient information provided by the government, it is regrettable that the video drew attention from media outlets in Japan and abroad and fueled distrust of Japan among foreign countries.
Questions also remain about the ministry’s decision-making process. It is undeniable that senior ministry officials had to make decisions on a series of difficult issues, thus rattling the ministry’s judgment over allowing the passengers to disembark.
In the first place, infectious disease control in Japan is under the authority of not just the ministry, but also the Cabinet Secretariat and the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, among other entities — a framework that makes it difficult to reach prompt decisions based on experts’ opinions.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) spearheads infectious disease control, playing roles that range from gathering information and providing explanations to the public to conducting quarantine operations. Japan, with reference to the CDC, should consider establishing its own system to better respond to a crisis.
Among medical workers who conducted quarantine aboard the Diamond Princess by putting themselves at risk of infection, some were reportedly shunned as “germs” themselves when they went back to their workplace, while others were criticized for having participated in the operations. Such discrimination must never be tolerated.