Documentaries·Point of View

We launched a media campaign to escape the Diamond Princess 'COVID cruise'

‘Fear is a great motivator [and] networking can be lifesaving,’ says author who was quarantined for 12 days on a cruise ship

‘Fear is a great motivator [and] networking can be lifesaving.’

Gay Courter aboard the Diamond Princess (Philip Courter)

Our confinement on the Diamond Princess, the ship where my husband and I had just enjoyed a two-week Southeast Asian cruise, reminded me of two truisms. First, fear is a great motivator. Second, networking can be lifesaving.

Phil and I spent the last 50 years making documentary films together, and I've built a career as a writer. We've raised three accomplished children and travelled widely. All these experiences helped us survive the first major outbreak outside China of the novel coronavirus — which has since caused so much grief on this planet. The COVID Cruise, a documentary from The Nature of Things, tells this story in detail as it unfolded.

Cases of COVID-19 on the ship

The first shock came the night before the end of the cruise, when we heard a man had tested positive for COVID-19 after disembarking in Hong Kong. At first, we were told the Japanese ministry of health just needed to conduct some checks. So we bided our time, hoping the rest of our trip would not be delayed further.  

The news about the contagion was so terrifying I couldn't sleep. So I emailed a news producer friend, "Guess where we are?" The next day, ABC News asked Phil to film what was happening around the ship, and we appeared on Good Morning America

People seemed more upset about changing their travel plans than getting the virus. But the following morning, the captain announced that 10 people on the ship had tested positive and we were under quarantine — a word I had thought was obsolete — for at least 14 days. Upon hearing this, Phil went out to our balcony overlooking the pier. "Oh, my God!" he said.

Ambulances parked on lot beside the Diamond Princess in Japan as seen from the ship (Philip Courter)

Ambulances and military vehicles screamed toward the terminal. Workers in hazmat suits erected blue plastic tarps to shield the gangways, where ambulances were ready … to transport whom? People who were ill? People who had died? As helicopters whirred around the ship, it felt as if we were extras in a disaster movie.  

A police cordon kept a throng of reporters and a phalanx of satellite vans at bay. "We've got to be sure the media hear from the passengers," Phil said as he filmed the surreal scene.  

Harnessing media attention to get off the ship

Soon, we were inundated with requests from around the globe for interviews. We enlisted our children to help coordinate the deluge, but ultimately, they had to turn to a PR professional. "This story has blown up around the world," she told us. "But you need to focus. Our mission is to get everyone off that damn ship."

Focusing helped because our fears for our own safety — our ages put us in the high-risk group — kept escalating. Every day more people were taken away, the total zooming to 20 … 61 … 85 … 174. How were people confined to their cabins getting sick — and would we be next? The only official information came when the captain made announcements over the loudspeaker. Eventually, he stopped revealing how many new cases there were, and we began to rely on our media contacts for more reliable news.

Gay Courter gives an interview at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas (Philip Courter)

As the number of victims mounted exponentially — ultimately reaching over 700, with 14 deaths — we spent every waking moment doing interviews. Since the elderly were at the highest risk, we pleaded for them to be released first, which the authorities finally agreed to. By triaging the most vulnerable, the Japanese were admitting the quarantine had failed. 

The end to a harrowing experience

We pivoted the message in our press releases and interviews — including an opinion piece for the Washington Post — entreating our U.S. government to repatriate the Americans on board. Luckily, our voices, along with those of other vocal passengers, were heard, and two cargo planes came for Americans on the 12th day. Soon afterward, the Canadian government and other countries followed suit. We spent another two weeks in quarantine on a Texas air force base and, happily, remained healthy.

Altogether, it was a harrowing experience. We suffered from traumatic stress and received counselling for it. But my biggest takeaway is that reaching out to whoever will listen is something everyone must be ready to do. If we hadn't, we might not be here to tell our story.

Watch The COVID Cruise on The Nature of Things.

Gay Courter's latest book is Quarantine!: How I Survived the Diamond Princess Coronavirus Crisis. She and her husband, Philip Courter, live in Florida.

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