Ruby Princess cruise ship: Blame must be shared for one of the worst disasters in modern cruising

Although aspects of the Ruby Princess saga have at times offered up shades of Gilbert and Sullivan, perhaps Shakespeare can offer more understanding of this still unfolding bitter tragedy, that has already cost 20 lives.

In recent days Mick Fuller, the NSW Police Commissioner, has become the constabulary equivalent of the hallucinating Lady Macbeth with her cry of "out, damned spot!" in the famed sleepwalking soliloquy which features, rather ironically, the incessant imaginary washing of hands.

Fuller wants Australia to wash its hands of the "plague ship" by banishing it from its prosaic Port Kembla grain terminal berth and from our territorial waters as soon as this weekend - even though 149 crew out of 1000 still on board have tested positive for the virus and some of them, according to Princess Cruises, are seriously ill.

 Has nothing been gleaned from the earlier Diamond Princess debacle off Japan in respect to isolating large numbers aboard a vessel for an extended period during a pandemic?

As is sadly too common in these cases, the poorer crew members look likely to suffer most. Ruby Princess crew members hailing from rich nations already appear to have been repatriated and the fate of those from less affluent backgrounds is uncertain.

The death of a US Ruby Princess passenger in recent days, the first passenger linked to the ill-fated cruise to die outside of Australia - has taken the death toll to 20. Now the grim question is whether crew members will be added to this number.

How can we allow a potential second chapter to this tragedy to occur among the ship's crew?

Hard as it is to conceive, the number of deaths of passengers on the Ruby Princess incident now effectively ranks as one of the worst modern-day cruise ship disasters outside of wartime when liners were routinely commandeered by governments to carry troops.

It is only surpassed by the Costa Concordia, which ran aground in 2012 along the coast off Tuscany in Italy, causing the loss of 32 lives. The death toll from the Diamond Princess, which captured the world's attention more than even Ruby Princess, at last count, is 12.

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The Carnival group, the owners of the Ruby Princess, have been as wily as the state government in its media management of the affair. It's been consistently secretive and aloof, at least in an on-the-record sense.

It initially chose to release orchestrated video statements with only the NSW Premier's announcement of a Commission of Inquiry this week into the debacle drawing a full written statement of regret from Jan Swartz, president of Princess Cruises.

Swartz expressed the line's "deep sadness over the terrible impact the coronavirus has had across the globe" and confirmed its intention to assist the NSW Commission of Inquiry, called by Gladys Berejiklian, in its efforts to establish the truth.

Tellingly, Swartz couldn't resist listing some basic truths of her own, namely that it is easy to state what should or shouldn't have been done in retrospect, particularly after some sought to blame the cruise line for not acting earlier.

Channel Seven News accused Ruby Princess's crew of partying with passengers on the ill-fated cruise. It screened "explosive" footage" showing them dancing around passengers seated at restaurant tables and waving napkins in the air. In reality, as anyone who has taken a cruise knows, it was all a performance, part of a long-held and normally innocuous tradition that sees the invariably well-liked and well-appreciated crew members farewell passengers towards the end of a cruise ship voyage.

Whatever anyone thinks about the conduct of Carnival, Swartz did make the correct assertion that "even at the time the ship left Sydney, international flights were coming to Australia, the borders were still open and major sporting events were still being played to packed stadiums".

Indeed, on March 8, the day of the Ruby Princess's departure from Sydney's Overseas Passenger Terminal, 86,174 fans were allowed to attend the final of the women's T20 World Cup final at the MCG.

Swartz could have also added the fact that during the ship's voyage, the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was on March 13 still intending to go to the football. The Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, on that same weekend was still telling Australians to go about their normal business.

At that time, too, social distancing was shaping as one of the great failures of public health communication with the widespread lack of community compliance and confusion a threat to containing the virus in Australia.

But footage of both the embarkation and disembarkation of the Ruby Princess showing passengers grouped closely together should have caused alarm bells.

The government and its agencies, along with the hapless Border Force, should have been far more familiar with the vagaries of health aboard cruise ships with vessels notorious for outbreaks of norovirus, a contagion that causes vomiting and diarrhoea which is also common in nursing homes, hospitals and schools. If norovirus can easily spread, why not the coronavirus?

The practices of the cruise industry, which has always sold itself on fun not fear, have been shockingly exposed with its future viability seriously threatened. But so too has the conduct of our governments and their agencies.

A basic expectation of the Commission of Inquiry should be that all parties immersed in the Ruby Princess affair be equally scrutinised to establish the truth as to what went wrong both at sea and on shore.

Anthony Dennis is travel editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age

See also: Only one country was willing to help trapped Australian cruise passengers

See also: The five lessons every traveller must learn from the pandemic

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