Hundreds of relieved passengers finally disembarked a coronavirus-stricken cruise ship in Japan on Wednesday after testing negative for the disease that has now claimed more than 2,000 lives in China and spread panic worldwide.
With 542 positive cases, the Diamond Princess is easily the biggest cluster outside China, and Japan has faced mounting criticism for its quarantine arrangements as the passengers disperse into the wider world.
“I’m relieved … I want to take a good rest,” said a 77-year-old Japanese passenger, who declined to give his name. He said he would be boarding Japan’s famously crowded railway system home.
A fleet of yellow-dotted city buses, plus a dozen or so taxis, whisked away the passengers, many of whom dragged their luggage behind them and waved to former ship-mates on balconies as they disembarked.
Fresh figures from China showed the death toll surging beyond 2,000 with more than 74,000 infected, although the rate of new cases continued to slow.
Hundreds more cases have been reported in two dozen countries, including 15 in South Korea – a 50 per cent rise – with a cluster of at least 11 around the southern city of Daegu.
Hong Kong also reported its second death from the virus, which has proved extremely infectious.
For the 500 passengers disembarking the Diamond Princess after testing negative, a difficult 14-day quarantine period has come to an end after their dream cruise turned into a nightmare of fear and boredom confined in many cases to small windowless cabins.
“Our last deep gratitude to the crew and captain for such amazing care . . . during the epic crisis . . . we can’t wait to see you again soon on board again,” tweeted passenger Yardley Wong, who left after 14 days cooped in a small cabin with her six-year-old son.
Many were left onboard with an anxious wait for test results that would allow them to disembark.
Asked how he felt seeing others disembark while remaining on the ship, US lawyer Matt Smith said: “I need an emoji for envy.”
Michael Ryan, head of WHO’s health emergencies programme, said the outbreak was “very serious” and could grow, but stressed that outside China’s Hubei, it was “affecting a very, very tiny, tiny proportion of people.”
But in Japan, some have raised concerns about allowing people from the cruise ship to board flights home or spread out into the notoriously busy Japanese capital.
Kentaro Iwata, a professor at the infectious diseases division of Kobe University, blasted the on-ship quarantine as a “major failure, a mistake”.
“It is highly likely secondary infections occurred,” Iwata said, adding scepticism from abroad of the quarantine was “only natural”.
He later said in a video published online that he was self-quarantining after a brief visit to the ship where he raised major concerns about the procedures on board.
“It was completely chaotic,” he said.
Elated passengers also began disembarking from a second cruise ship that has been at the centre of coronavirus fear, the MS Westerdam, which made shore in Sihanoukville in Cambodia.
Hundreds were departing after receiving a clean bill of health, as Prime Minister Hun Sen greeted the first passengers with hugs and flowers.
American Christina Kirby, fretted about the stigma some MS Westerdam passengers could face once they return home. “I want people to remember that . . . there’s a human behind each of these stories and those who are ill deserve compassion,” she said.
Several countries appear to have lost patience with the quarantine on board the Diamond Princess and chartered planes to repatriate citizens.
In the first such evacuation Monday, more than 300 Americans flew home even though 14 had tested positive.
Britain, Hong Kong and Australia are among other countries that have vowed to repatriate people from the ship but will insist on a further 14-day quarantine on home soil.
Nathalie MacDermott, a medical expert at King’s College London, recommended a further 14-day self-quarantine for those leaving.
“Given the circumstances on board the Diamond Princess, those passengers leaving the boat should be managed in a similar manner to those individuals departing a highly affected city or region,” said MacDermott.
South Korea vowed to block foreigners who have been on board the Diamond Princess from entering the country.
Disembarkation is expected to take around three days as more test results become available. The crew will begin a new quarantine when the last passenger has left.
People in Yokohama appeared supportive of the decision to allow the passengers out despite the virus fears.
“I am sure those people on board must be really worried. I hope they can go back to their normal life soon,” said 51-year-old Isamu Habiro. “As a Yokohama resident, I don’t want them to be treated unfairly. I want to cheer for them,” Habiro said.