Three times a day, Gie and her team push a convoy of dining carts through the corridors of the quarantined luxury cruise ship Diamond Princess. Wearing face masks and gloves, they stop at occupied rooms, greeting passengers and delivering meals before moving on to the next deck.
The task runs like clockwork — crew members offload appetizers, the main course, drinks and utensils, largely in that order. (Sometimes, there’s dessert.) But lately, something often interrupts their flow: The thank you notes stuck on many cabin doors, written by passengers and addressed to the crew.
“We stop and take time to read [the notes]. We talk about how we’re happy that somehow we make them smile,” Gie, a Diamond Princess crew member who asked to go by an alias due to company media policy, says.
On one suite’s door, the word “thank you” is written in ten languages. On another note, a passenger writes, “Thanks for your dedicated support. Take care of your health.”
“Even though the passengers are wearing masks when they answer the door, I can see their smiles. I can see in their eyes. They appreciate everything we do for them,” Gie, 33, says. “That keeps us going.”
The gratitude from passengers is understandable. With at least 542 confirmed cases, the cruise ship has the largest outbreak of novel coronavirus outside China, and passengers are under strict quarantine, largely confined to their cabins. The crew members have been the only lifelines for passengers. They deliver food, water, towels, medication and anything else passengers request.
“They’ve basically been told that they need to take care of all these potentially sick people,” says Kent Frasure, a 43-year-old passenger from Portland, Oregon. “They’re kind of the unsung heroes here.”
But while the 2,600-some passengers on board enjoy free Internet, streaming movies and TV shows and playing with puzzles and games to pass the time in their private cabins, crew members — mostly from the Philippines and other developing nations — have continued working. Those given food delivery duties are up before 6 a.m. to serve breakfast, to work through as late as 10 p.m. for the end of dinner service.
And they are doing it at risk to their own health. At least 33 crew members have been infected with coronavirus.
Princess Cruises, which is owned by Carnival, said in a statement that, “our guests and crew onboard Diamond Princess are the focus of our entire global organization right now and all of our hearts are with each of them.” The cruise line did not respond to requests for comment.
And as the U.S., Australia, and Hong Kong send chartered planes to evacuate passengers on board the ship, several crew members told TIME they do not know what the cruise line’s plan for them is once the quarantine ends on Feb. 19.
Life below deck
Crew members aboard the Diamond Princess aren’t afforded many of the same protections as the passengers they serve. Public health experts have said cruise ships are especially susceptible to the spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19 because passengers are in close, frequent contact with each other. For the crew, it’s even more so.
They live on decks below sea level, bunking with one or two other people and sharing a toilet with them. They dine in shifts at a mess hall, where cafeteria tables seat up to 12 people. Only ten days into the 14-day quarantine did Princess Cruises ask crew members to take an extra precaution when eating — to leave an empty seat between people at a table, upon advice from the Japanese health authorities, according to one crew member interviewed by TIME.
The cruise company has given all crew members thermometers, and those who have a fever must report it. But they aren’t isolated.
Obet, a crew member in his 30s who also asked to be referred to with an alias, had been arranging meals and delivering them to passengers before he came down with a fever last week. When he reported it, he was told to isolate himself in his cabin and take the acetaminophen (a generic pain reliever) he had with him. After he ran out of pills, it took a day for the medical team to give him more.
Although he had recovered from his fever, Obet was told not to return to work. But he was still sharing a room with a cabin mate who was not experiencing any coronavirus symptoms. Obet says he did his best to keep a distance from him, and wore a mask whenever he was in the room.
“There’s nothing we can do,” says Obet. “There’s not enough cabins for those sick crew members [to isolate themselves in] so they decided to tell us to just stay in our cabins.”
Obet and his cabin-mate were tested for the coronavirus last week. On Saturday afternoon, they received the news that both of them were infected. They were taken to a hospital later that evening, where their temperatures and vitals are now being checked at least twice a day. Obet says he is taking pills for a mild cough he still has, but otherwise says he is feeling “energized.” His cabin mate still has no visible symptoms.
“There’s lots of crew also getting infected and it’s becoming more alarming for us,” Obet told TIME before his diagnosis. “We don’t know if we’re still safe on board.”
An assistant cook from India who asked to stay anonymous says kitchen workers wear masks and gloves at all times. To his knowledge, no one in the kitchen has been infected with the virus. “We are taking all the necessary precautions,” he says. “Nobody wants to play with life.”
Of the 1,045 crew members on the Diamond Princess, around half, like Gie and Obet, are from the Philippines. Joining the cruise industry is an attractive option for many from the Southeast Asian nation — they can make more money than working back home, and are free to get off the ship and do their own traveling during off-hours. One crew member who has been in the cruise industry for a little over a year said he had visited 10 countries. But a job on a cruise ship comes at the expense of time with family; most crew members sign on for contracts that keep them away from home for nine months at a time.
Gie, a mother of two, was meant to return to the Philippines next month. It would be the first time she’s seen her family since last July, when she embarked on the cruise. But because of the virus outbreak, it looks unlikely that she can go home as planned.
Other crew members come from countries including India, Indonesia, Thailand, Russia and Ukraine. The passengers they serve come overwhelmingly from richer countries. Japanese tourists make up a majority of the 2,666 passengers onboard the Diamond Princess. The rest are from the U.S, U.K. and Australia, among other nations.
‘We’re just being positive’
Gie has worked as a server on the Diamond Princess for about seven months. Normally, she waits tables at one of the restaurants on deck, taking orders and interacting with the ship’s passengers . But that changed when the ship went under quarantine on Feb. 5, after the company learned a passenger who disembarked earlier had tested positive for the coronavirus. The ship has been docked at Yokohoma, Japan, ever since.
The restaurant Gie used to serve in has been reduced from a bustling eatery to a quiet base for crew to organize food prepared by the kitchen team. “Of course we are really very scared. During the first two or three days, we were ranting, because we didn’t want to deliver, to face the passengers,” Gie says. “But we realize that it’s part of the job. We’re scared, but we’re just being positive. We try not to think about it.”
The cruise line makes sure the crew have sufficient masks and gloves to protect themselves, Gie adds. “We’re very particular with hygiene and sanitation. We wash our hands frequently. Sometimes we double up [on masks].”
Princess Cruises said last week it is offering crew members two months of paid vacation. Authorities in the Philippines said they would bring home the 500 or so Filipino crew members on the cruise, but did not indicate a timeline.
Crew spend the few off-hours they have calling family back home and updating social media. On Facebook, Gie counts down the days left till the end of the quarantine, quotes Bible verses and shares news articles on the rising number of coronavirus cases on the cruise.
In one Facebook post about yet another increase in the number of confirmed cases on the cruise, Gie wrote: “Still our spirits are high, this too shall pass.”