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Giant ships, big diseases

One wonders, as the size and capacity of cruise ships mushroomed, and the various lines proudly unveiled their latest mammoth vessel, with all its outrageous attractions, whether anyone gave much thought to the prospect of the thousands of souls aboard contracting a seriously contagious disease such as the coronavirus.

Well, you might say, norovirus and various similar problems have been with us for some time and all cruise ships carry a fully trained medical staff, with proper protocols to contain any outbreaks.

But did anyone consider an outbreak of something really nasty among the embarked populations, in some cases resembling that of a small town, as the designers competed to extrapolate ship sizes to something nobody ever imagined twenty years ago? It makes you wonder, but just as fear of catastrophic loss didn’t stop people building 23,000 teu containerships, the economies of scale always seem to triumph. Potential reward from super-size will invariably cancel out any doubts about putting too many eggs in one basket.

Shipwreck, fire and pandemic

While shipwreck, fire, foundering and flood can be anticipated  along with other marine risks and suitable precautions taken, it takes an unusual degree of pessimism (or forethought) to imagine a 5,000 berth cruise ship in the eye, not of a hurricane, but something which could become a pandemic. What conceivable drill can you practice, even on the biggest desktop?

Well, everyone is learning now and it is not difficult to sympathise with the resolution of port authorities in the Far East as giant cruise ships, which may or may not be harbouring coronavirus, amid the thousands of passengers and crew seek, to enter harbour. It is the sheer number of potential problems, all contained in a single huge hull, that makes permission to enter port a bold decision. Unless things are really desperate, and large numbers of your nationals are embarked, it is far easier to deny the master the pratique he seeks.

Declaration of Health

One has to feel for the masters of these monsters, prime navigators at the peak of their professions, at what fate and the curious habits of mutating viruses, has thrown at them. The duties of a shipmaster of a vessel approaching a port from overseas, as they relate to the Declaration of Health are quite explicit, it being the master’s responsibility to “ascertain the state of health of all persons on board” and answer questions relating to this matter. The declaration will be countersigned by the ship’s surgeon, but it is the master’s responsibility, as is the health of all aboard.

Read all Seatrade Maritime News coverage on the impact of the coronavirus on shipping

One wonders what might have prepared a cruise ship master as he ascended the ladder to the lonely summit of peak responsibility, for such an eventuality as is being faced by those wondering whether their complements are contaminated, and whether a port will let them dock. He or she probably remembers questions in professional examinations about pratique procedures, and how to ascertain whether there is infectious disease aboard.

In my day the authorities were particularly interested in “suspected cases of plague, cholera, yellow fever, typhus fever or smallpox” but I dare say the areas of interest will have considerably widened by now. We were exhorted to be very alert to “unusual mortality among the rats”. I cannot believe this would be an issue aboard a deeply cleaned cruise ship.

But hopefully from this outbreak, which we pray will be mercifully brief, some best practice which will be of use to hard-pressed masters in the future will emerge. Quite how you clean and make completely safe a ship which has had this disease aboard will also exercise the minds of owners, if they wish to attract future passengers. After the deepest of deep cleaning, you possibly might think about a name change.

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