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'The Last Cruise': HBO documentary reveals when the Diamond Princess cruise vacation turned into a COVID-19 nightmare

Elisabetta Bianchini
·5-min read

"One team, one dream" is the saying between crew members on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, but now we get a glimpse into the moment that dream turned into a COVID-19 nightmare in a new HBO documentary The Last Cruise (debuting on Crave on Tuesday, March 30 at 9:00 p.m. ET).

When the Diamond Princess cruise set sail from Yokohama, Japan on Jan. 20, 2020, with 2,666 passengers and 1,045 crew members, there were still a lot of unknowns about COVID-19. In 40 minutes, The Last Cruise showcases videos taken by both passengers and the crew for a first-hand account of what it was like to be on the ship as concerns around COVID-19 became more serious.

After the first COVID-19 case was identified in the U.S., while the ship had been travelling around Asia, American passengers Cheryl and Paul Molesky were told by Paul's daughter to not get off the ship in Hong Kong because there was a virus going around. But there weren't a lot of concerns about the virus for anyone on the cruise at that point.

Eventually, cruise employees were taking everyone's temperatures, with several passenger calling it simply an "inconvenience" to their vacation. When the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed on the ship at the beginning of February, the priority was still to just monitor for anyone else who had cold or flu-like symptoms.

Initial screening by the Japanese Ministry of Health found that 10 people had tested positive for COVID-19. The ship was put into quarantine in Yokohama and a second set of samples found that 10 more people were positive. Masks were then delivered to everyone's staterooms.

SIHANOUKVILLE - FEBRUARY 15 : Passengers waiting to travel home gather for a last health screening before disembarking from the MS Westerdam cruise ship after being stranded they are docked on February 15, 2020  in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. The ship is completely free from the Coronavirus (COVID-19.) but still was turned away from five other Asian ports, it departed Hong Kong February 1st with 1,455 passengers and 802 crew on board. Americans will be evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked at Yokohama, Japan with more than 200 infections. The Coronavirus cases rise to more than 64,000 people, total number of deaths is approximately 1,383. 
(Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images )
SIHANOUKVILLE - FEBRUARY 15 : Passengers waiting to travel home gather for a last health screening before disembarking from the MS Westerdam cruise ship after being stranded they are docked on February 15, 2020 in Sihanoukville, Cambodia. The ship is completely free from the Coronavirus (COVID-19.) but still was turned away from five other Asian ports, it departed Hong Kong February 1st with 1,455 passengers and 802 crew on board. Americans will be evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked at Yokohama, Japan with more than 200 infections. The Coronavirus cases rise to more than 64,000 people, total number of deaths is approximately 1,383. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images )

'The rich would be taken care of'

While the passengers stayed in their rooms, the crew still had to work. Phones had to be answered, cleaning had to be done, food had to be made and delivered.

In the documentary Maruja Daya, a pastry chef, says she felt like "the rich would be taken care of," expressing concerns that the crew was still working when they were also at risk of being infected.

Dede, a dishwasher who was particularly excited about being able to work on a cruise ship, highlights that there was no separation between crew members that were infected and those who weren't. The crew was also scared to report that they were sick or even to complain about the conditions.

Sonali Thakkar, who worked security on the ship, reveals that as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases on the ship continued to rise, there was a rumour that there was a plan to sink the ship with people on board, which was frightening for her.

Knowing what we know now about COVID-19 and the spread of the virus on this cruise ship in particular, it makes you cringe seeing some of the passengers complain about the food they are receiving and the impact of the quarantine on the hospitality of the staff.

It's revealed that at least a third of the crew members who tested positive for COVID-19 by around the Feb. 9 mark didn't have any symptoms. That's when it was discovered that asymptomatic spread was possible.

The crew decks have no windows so it was incredibly isolating for cruise employees in particular. While everyone was stuck on the ship, the crew was below deck, not even knowing what time of day it was unless they were looking at a clock. They just wanted some fresh air.

Near the end of the documentary, we see the American passengers getting on a plane to the U.S. near the end of February, after some expressed concerns about possibly catching COVID-19 on the aircraft if they disembark the ship. In the middle of the plane, with passengers from the Diamond Princess on board, you see a plastic curtain enclosure. One of the couples featured in the documentary reveals that's where people who were COVID-19 positive were sitting throughout the journey.

A total of 712 people contracted COVID-19 on the Diamond Princess cruise ship and 14 died.

While COVID-19 still rages on, The Last Cruise makes you think about all the progress made throughout the pandemic, but all the things that are still unknown about the virus, including asymptomatic spread. It also highlights the importance of support for essential workers.

Although it happened more than a year ago, even if you're aware of the events, it's still incredibly eerie to see how quickly the virus spread and it makes you uncomfortable to see delays to measures like wearing masks.

When the U.S. government studied what transpired on the ship, it was determined that COVID-19 was airborne and spread through asymptomatic carriers. Ultimately, The Last Cruise stresses that the CDC in the U.S. took more than a month to recommend masking to prevent COVID-19 spread. Canada's chief public health officer officially called for the use of non-medical face masks when a two-metre distance cannot be maintained on May 20.

While many might think going on a cruise would be the last thing anyone on the Diamond Princess would want to do again, one woman, who was actually sent to a hospital because she tested positive for COVID-19 on the ship, said she and her husband would definitely go on a cruise again, with another one already booked.