HONG KONG -- When Michelle Au, 53, boarded the Diamond Princess in Hong Kong with her husband on Jan. 25, she had no idea their 11-day luxury cruise would turn into a bizarre four-week sojourn on a plague-infested ship.
On the day the couple embarked on their voyage, an elderly passenger disembarked at the same port. Ten days later, the 80-year-old man, who had briefly visited mainland China, tested positive for the new coronavirus -- officially known as COVID-19 and responsible for sickening tens of thousands and killing over 2,000.
Since then, their journey has encountered an unexpected twist, as the couple and over 3,700 of their fellow passengers are being quarantined off the coast of Yokohama, Japan. Of these, 542 have tested positive for the novel coronavirus as of Tuesday -- remarkably, the largest cluster outside China.
"We are of course a bit worried as we see the increased number of infected people," said Au. "But our health is fine [so there is] no use worrying about things beyond our control."
Au said that free Wi-Fi and phone services have been available since Feb. 4, the first day of quarantine. "Because we have access to information, we are aware of the situation and are quite calm," she said, rather stoically. Passengers were also provided with iPhones preloaded with messaging app Line so they can contact Japan's Ministry of Health anytime, she added.
Although room cleaning has been stopped, passengers are given clean linen, towels, clothes detergent, wipes and masks. "The hygiene is OK," she said. "We are quite comfortable in our cabin with live TV, movies and internet."
The couple, who fortunately had booked a balcony cabin with access to fresh air, said they had not stepped out of their room since the ship was quarantined. Not so fortunate have been passengers stuck in interior cabins, who are only allowed brief, supervised walks outside to relieve their stress and boredom. However, due to their more dismal circumstances, these passengers get to take their walks before passengers like the Aus.
The UK-flagged vessel has become a veritable petri dish for the deadly virus, finally prompting the U.S., Australia, Italy, South Korea and other countries to evacuate citizens stuck on board.
"The medium of infection on the Diamond Princess cruise is unknown," said David Hui, professor of respiratory medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "It has already become a hot zone for virus spreading, and we do not recommend people to stay there any longer."
Au is due to return home on Thursday via a chartered-flight arranged by the Hong Kong government. Upon arrival, passengers will be quarantined for an additional 14 days.
Au said she is frustrated by the Hong Kong authorities' lack of communication throughout the ordeal. "There is no reason to extend the quarantine after we have completed 14 days [of quarantine aboard the ship] and must be tested negative before disembarking," said Au. She feels that being quarantined at home would have been preferable to being held isolated in Hong Kong government facilities.
She may be disappointed, though, as quarantine upon returning to Hong Kong will likely leave much to be desired compared with that aboard the Diamond Princess, where passengers "get everything we need," according to Au. She has received thermometers, prescribed medicines, skincare and games to kill time.
She said masked staffers have delivered food, snacks and beverages to every room three to four times a day. "I would say the food is quite good and plentiful." On Valentine's Day, crew members even sent her a rose and chocolates.
"That was so sweet and thoughtful. It exceeded our expectations," she said. "We are grateful to all the crew members, who are facing an equally difficult time as the passengers."
Princess Cruises, the U.S. operator of the Diamond Princess, said it will offer a full refund for the trip, as well as compensation for all expenses incurred, including tour and hotel fees before and after the cruise.
"In my opinion, the Hong Kongers stuck in Wuhan [where the virus originated] should have been given priority to evacuate. Our situation is not so bad," said Au. "We have come to accept it as an extension of our holiday."