How Carnival's Unconscionable Negligence Made "The Ruby Princess" A Floating Death Trap

A few days ago, we reported that Australian authorities had launched a criminal probe into Carnival, the world's largest travel company, over its handling of the "Ruby Princess", a cruise ship that became a floating death trap, then contributed greatly to spreading the novel coronavirus across Australia as hundreds of infected passengers were allowed to disembark, fifteen of whom later died.

While Carnival has tried to play down the criminal investigation by insisting that it would cooperate with Australian authorities, prosecutors in the country have made it clear that this is an extremely serious issue: Australian police have put together a 30-person team under the leadership of an experienced homicide detective to investigate the ship and its corporate parent.

On Friday, the Washington Post published an extensive investigation exposing what appears to be unconscionable negligence on the part of Carnival and the ship's management.

On Thursday, detectives wearing head-to-foot protective clothing raided the "Ruby Princess", seizing evidence in the form of documents and data, including the voyage data recorder that records conversations on the bridge.

In what has become a depressingly familiar narrative of carelessness and neglect, one of WaPo's sources said that despite the international catastrophe unfolding around them, little effort was taken by the ship's crew to keep passengers separated. Measures that were taken, including "health questionnaires" that kept some international passengers from boarding, were almost laughably inadequate in hindsight.

What's almost worse, is that patients who complained about what ended up being COVID-19 symptoms were charged outrageous amounts of money for basic medication like advil and cough medicine. One passenger who nearly succumbed to a case of COVID-19 she acquired on board the ship was charged $300 for cough medicine and headache pills that probably cost less than $5 at a pharmacy. Talk about price gouging...

When Kiri-Lee Ryder, 41, complained to the ship’s medical team at 1 a.m. one day that she was suffering body aches and severe headaches, she was given headache pills and cough medicine, according to her mother, Carlene Brown. She was also charged about $300.

A week later, the Australian mother of three was diagnosed with covid-19. Ryder spent more than two weeks in intensive care, much of it in an induced coma. Before going under, she phoned her children and mother from the ward, which had banned all visitors.

"It’s silly, but she calls me mommy and she just said, 'They are going to put me to sleep,'" Brown said in an interview. "And she wanted to say that she loved us. You could hear the struggle for breath in her voice.

"I said, 'We love you darling, and we will see you when you wake up.'"

But even more alarming than the company's negligence, was the willingness of passengers to totally disregard any semblance of responsible behavior once the ship's management said that the odds of outbreak were very low (since the crew had purportedly been "tested" and passengers had been given those "health questionnaires").

Unfortunately, that wasn't the case, and 15 people are death because of this error in judgment. But it's just another example of the extent to which people will believe what they want to believe - that they would be safe at sea while the virus raged on land - if given even the slightest pretext.

Several of WaPo's sources described passengers failing to cover their mouths and noses when they sneezed, passengers crowding into over-full elevators. As one woman said - "people just didn't care."

Hunt, whose mother and father-in-law were infected, said she blamed her fellow passengers, many of whom did not realize that they could pass on the virus without showing symptoms.

“People were selfish and thought they were safe being away on a boat,” she said. “I had people sneeze all over me. I had people squeeze themselves into lifts that were already too full.

"At the end of the day, we knew what was going on around the world. We knew how quickly it spread in ships. People just didn’t care.”

A Princess cruises spokesman said anyone displaying covid-19 symptoms or who had been in contact with an infected person was not allowed on board and that crew members were tested by health authorities before the ship left.

"There was therefore no reason to believe there was covid-19 on the ship,” he said.

At the time, cruise ships worldwide did not conduct onboard covid-19 tests but were expected to provide swabs to health authorities for onshore testing, he added.

But unlike other incidents involving cruise ships, once the "Ruby Princess" returned to port, passengers were allowed to exit. Instead of the "thorough health screening" they were supposed to receive, they were reportedly given pamphlets explaining how to self-quarantine for 2 weeks. Many of those from Europe and the US couldn't get on a plane right away and fly home. Many waited around in Sydney, renting hotel rooms, while they waited to catch a flight back home. One family that spoke to WaPo eventually flew back to Perth, a city in the far-west of Australia.

A day after they disembarked, the first 13 passengers tested positive, setting off a race to test hundreds of others. Four days after that, the first passengers started to die. Meanwhile, Carnival seemed to make a point of not informing customers that anybody on the ship had been sickened. When cases started to emerge, it took many by surprise.

The Ruby Princess arrived back in Sydney on March 19, three days early. Passengers were told they would be screened by state health officials, Hunt said. Instead, they were given a leaflet explaining how to isolate themselves for two weeks.

Many could not return home right away. About one-third were from the United States or Europe. Ryder and her family spent two days in a hotel, and then took a five-hour commercial flight to Perth.

It took five days after disembarking for the first passenger to die. Another who followed was 75-year-old Karla Lake, whose husband Graeme Lake accused Carnival of allowing passengers to believe they were not at risk.

"They made a point of not letting anyone know at all that anyone was sick,” he told Australia’s Seven television network. “Good as gold, we thought it’s fine.”

Local and federal authorities in Australia have traded blame over who was responsible for clearing the passengers to disembark that day in Sydney, but now that the criminal probe has been launched, it looks like responsibility will ultimately be borne by Carnival. While the government probably deserves some of the blame, it's worth noting that the "Ruby Princess" response blighted what was otherwise praised as an effective response by the Australian government.

The ship's former passengers represent the largest share of positive cases in the country, and the largest share of deaths. 15 passengers have died, and more than 660 have tested positive out of the 2,600+ passengers aboard. Australia has confirmed a total of ~6,200 cases and 55 deaths.

And now this company wants a bailout from the US government? We'll let Chamath Palihapitiya explain why this is such a bad idea.

Carnival is definitely in hot water, a fact that was reflected by a recent move higher in CDS spreads as the cost of insuring Carnival corporate debt against default soared, before legging lower again on Thursday after Jay Powell unveiled his plan to backstop the high-yield debt market.