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Are cruise lines ready to deal with the new pandemic out of China?

PortandTerminal.com, January 21, 2020

How is the spread of the new Chinese coronavirus likely to affect the cruise industry? How soon might they need to be ready to respond? Our best guide to how this could play out is the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003 and how the cruise industry was impacted by that outbreak.

Let’s start by looking at how quickly this new virus is spreading.

How fast is the virus spreading?

Massive crowds of people at a Chinese train station
The Chinese new year break is famously the largest annual human migration with 3 billion trips occurring over the holiday.

The new coronavirus coming out of China is spreading quickly. The SARS-like virus has already infected 308 people and killed six in China ahead of the start of the new year break this weekend.

The Chinese new year break is famously the largest annual human migration in the world with 3 billion trips occurring over the holiday. You can expect to see a dramatic uptick in new cases of the virus after that many people have rubbed shoulders in its epicentre.

Map credit: BBC

We also know that the virus has already spread beyond China’s borders with new cases having been identified in Thailand and South Korea. A new outbreak was also detected in Taiwan on Tuesday and in Australia.

Most worryingly, China’s National Health Commission on Monday confirmed the first cases of the human-to-human transition of the coronavirus. This revelation spooked investors and triggered a stock market sell-off.

Our prediction is that in early February this new outbreak is going to get a lot more serious as the massive Chinese new year movements of people significantly start impacting the number of cases detected.

How does the virus spread?

A buffet-style restaurant on a typical cruise ship
A buffet-style restaurant on a typical cruise ship is an ideal spot for a virus to spread

Let’s assume that the new virus is similar to the SARS virus which experts believe that it is.

The CDC says that with SARS, the virus is spread by “close person-to-person contact” most readily by respiratory droplets (droplet spread) produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

The virus also can spread when a person touches a surface or object contaminated with infectious droplets and then touches his or her mouth, nose, or eye(s). In addition, it is possible that the SARS virus might spread more broadly through the air (airborne spread) or by other ways that are not now known.

So let’s say just one contagious person boarded a large cruise ship carrying 3,000 passengers and crew for a two-week cruise. It doesn’t take a disease expert to realize that in the confines of a cruise ship, a virus that spreads as easily as something like SARS could quickly infect hundreds of passengers.

How did cruise lines respond during the SARS outbreak?

Authority screening passenger looking for tell-tale signs of fever. Both women wearing surgical masks.
Screening of passengers, looking for tell-tale signs of fever.

During the SARS epidemic in 2002-2003 cruise lines were all forced to adopt a SARS policy which was geared towards preventing the disease from getting onboard. For example, Carnival Cruise lines (and all the other major lines) had a policy of screening passengers for SARS before they boarded a ship and asked each to fill out a health questionnaire.

In instances where there was reason to be concerned, some passengers were asked to undergo medical screening before they were allowed to board the vessel.

Many lines did not allow passengers from SARS hot spots like Hong Kong, China and Taiwan onboard their ships. Many also rerouted ships away from several Asian ports or simply cancelled port calls on a number of high-risk destinations and opted to remain at sea instead.

Fortunately, and perhaps to these precautions, there were no reported cases of SARS onboard a cruise ship during the 2002-2003 outbreak.

How will all of this likely play out?

An almost empty pool area on a cruise ship.

If the spread of the new virus is at all like the SARS virus than this latest outbreak is going to hurt the cruise industry, especially in high-risk Asian markets.

During the SARS outbreak, some lines were forced to relocate cruise liners to other markets because of the steep downturn in Asian passenger numbers caused by the SARS illness.

The economic impact of Sars was driven mainly by fear, analysts at JPMorgan said, as consumers changed their behaviour to avoid close contact with other people. “Subsequently, the sectors most affected were those related to travel, tourism and hospitality.”

How bad the impact will be will depend on the virus itself and how quickly it spreads. During the global SARS outbreak in 2002-2003, a total of 8,098 people became sick with severe acute respiratory syndrome that was accompanied by either pneumonia or respiratory distress syndrome (probable cases), according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Of these, 774 died.

One encouraging piece of news is the response of the Chinese government to the latest virus outbreak. During the SARS outbreak, they were blamed for covering up the severity of the virus’ spread and as a result, making the epidemic worse than it needed to be.

With this new virus, they seemed to have learned their lesson. Anyone who concealed new cases would “be nailed on the pillar of shame for eternity“, the political body responsible for law and order said.

The world waits to see how bad it will get.

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