Ruby Princess victims’ families deserve answers

Setting off from Sydney just before sunset in early March, the Ruby Princess went on to cruise along the coast of New Zealand as its nearly 2700 passengers soaked up the scenery and enjoyed the entertainment on board. But the ship now finds itself at the centre of a criminal investigation after disgorging its passengers at Sydney’s Circular Quay, 11 days after departing.

The Ruby Princess carrying hundreds of sick crew with possible coronavirus enters Port Kembla.Credit:Nick Moir

The circumstances that led to them walking off the ship without even a basic temperature check deserve full examination. This bungled operation allowed more than 600 people with COVID-19, of whom 12 have now died, to wander freely through the community to make their way home. And it's not just the passengers caught up in this medical calamity. About 1000 crew from the Ruby Princess are now quarantined on board, docked at Port Kembla, 80 kilometres south of Sydney. Of those, about 200 are showing possible symptoms of COVID-19.

NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller says the criminal investigation's main focus will be on whether the operators of the Ruby Princess breached biosecurity laws in failing to alert local authorities as to the extent of sickness on board. They are not the only ones in the line of fire. The heat is also on state and federal agencies that gave the green light for the ship to disembark its passengers, who then caught trains, buses and even overseas flights to get home.

While there is no shortage of finger pointing, what is confounding is that it was only a month earlier that a cruise liner from the same company, the Diamond Princess, had captured the world's attention when passengers were quarantined for weeks in Yokohama, Japan, after many were found to be infected with the coronavirus. It was a medical disaster, with the virus spreading through the ship even as people were confined to their cabins, and has resulted in at least 12 deaths.

How could that not set the alarm bells ringing on the threat of catastrophe that every cruise liner posed, and particularly one that had admitted to having a number of passengers on board with flu-like symptoms? This is not a matter of hindsight. The situation in Japan, where the Australian government had to eventually charter a Qantas flight to rescue more than 200 Australians on board, gave officials first-hand experience of what can go wrong.

Of all the challenges governments globally have faced during this pandemic, cruise liners have certainly figured highly for many destinations that in normal times welcome them with open arms as a boost to local tourism industries. Despite international law of the sea allowing ships to enter a port of refuge if in distress, many countries, including Australia, are forcing cruise liners with staff on board out of their waters.

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While Australia is desperately trying to contain COVID-19, this seems a sensible step. But it should not be forgotten that, per capita, Australians are in the top tier of cruise ship travellers. It should also not be forgotten that crew members, who cater to all the holiday whims of those same travellers, work under what are often reported to be poor conditions, with long hours and low wages. They are now having to rely on the generosity of governments, not their own company, to help them.

This pandemic is turning so many day-to-day decisions into life and death situations. What happened on the Ruby Princess has resulted in many fatalities. The investigation needs to fully reveal what happened, not just for sake of finding the truth, but for the families of those who have lost loved ones.

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