Diamond Princess coronavirus quarantine ship
The Diamond Princess sits docked in Circular Quay, Sydney, 2009. . (Image: AAP/Paul Miller)

Have we had enough of cruise-ship disasters as metaphors for modernity by now?

The recently released inmates of the Diamond Princess were doing double-duty: incarcerated to protect us all from the further spread of Covid-19 (the exciting new name for coronavirus), they were also a floating image of recent decades, a pricey, pointless “pleasure” cruise that soon became a nautical hell, with guests confined to their cabins for a fortnight.

The food was terrible, outdoor exercise was minimal, and eventually the porn channel on the in-ship cable was made free, with the hope, I presume, that the guests-turned-inmates would wank themselves into a complaisant torpor.

The staff protested over their greater exposure, but did not take control of the ship. Largely drawn from the global South, they have been infected at a faster rate than the guests. Tourists began to pull up alongside and take photos of the few desperate postmodern galley slaves with deck privileges.

The only thing that prevented our full enjoyment of the giant floating metaphor was the bowel-watering fear of just how infectious Covid-19 might be. 

The first such floating modernity metaphor I recall was in the late ’80s, when a Thames party boat — all glass and lights, cover band playing Foreigner hits — got splintered by a larger vessel with many dead, and became a cartoonists’ go-to for the ’87 stockmarket crash.

Then, in 2012, there was Costa Concordia, a poorly maintained piece of hideous kitsch with an incompetent and cowardly captain, and there have been many in between.

The fact that we’re not doing that sort of stuff — we’re just watching and waiting and holding our breath behind masks — is a measure of our changed historical circumstances.

We could hitherto afford these ruminations that we were “heading towards the rocks”, precisely because we thought we weren’t; beneath the superficial venality and incompetence, the system, we believed, was intact.

We no longer believe that.

Have we had enough of cruise-ship metaphors? Yes, we’re in a different period, with the system crises coming fast. So far in 2020 we have seen:

  • Bushfires, which became a national catastrophe and then a global event
  • An act of war by the US against Iran, in third-country territory
  • A highly infectious virus spread rapidly to the world from one streetmarket in one Chinese city
  • President Donald Trump, post-impeachment acquittal, fully trashing the most basic separation of powers in the US by intervening in an actual trial of one of his cronies.

And we are six weeks in. Six weeks! No one’s doing cruise ship metaphors, no one’s invoking Blade Runner 2049, no one’s saying “this is like a Black Mirror episode!” because it’s now all like that.

Dystopias of recent past have been caught up to. Mass quarantines for two weeks tend to concentrate the mind wonderfully.

Instead of dystopia-chatter, there has been a nervous glance towards China’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, and some grudging respect for the resolve with which they handled the outbreak, firm hand, no nonsense, etc etc, before it became clear that it was at least possible that its increasingly totalitarian system had made the situation much, much worse.

This then prompted a rush back to the virtues of democracy, its ability to provide clear steering, true information, etc — just as, in Australia, the sports rorts affair showed how pathetically compromised, corrupted, distorted and inadequate the processes of parliamentary bureaucratic states are for dealing with the real challenges we face.

It was easy to praise, from afar, the iron fist of Xi Jinping in quarantining the whole of Wuhan and then Hubei province, and then to damn him for the suppression of warnings from doctors that this was no ordinary flu.

In other words, to suggest that the initial low death figures were a consequence of prompt action, and then to suggest that 1500 deaths were the result of a lack of freedom.

The truth is that, had the outbreak happened, say, here, de facto private hospitals would have instituted a first layer cover-up/inaction to cover their bottom line/KPI standing.

Doctors who objected would have been threatened with the sack, and possible civil proceedings. The health department would have responded sluggishly. The fixers in the health minister’s department would need focus-group responses before doing anything.

Contracts for emergency response would have been awarded to government mates without the most basic assessment of adequacy or tender.

News Corp would have steered its coverage by reference to the government’s political interests. If minimising it was the line, they would have sent their junior reporters out to willingly trash the personal reputation of any whistleblowing doctors.

To round out the party, the opposition would have looked for a marginal seat angle, and someone in The Guardian would have argued that the infection model of disease was biologically reductive, white supremacist, inherently heteronormative, and that trying to stop a virus crossing the border was a legacy of 200 years of colonialism.

Look, I mean you know it would happen that way. Exactly that way. Will happen that way.

The truth is that both systems have a dimension of effectiveness in dealing with these categorical situations, and a dimension of failure. But we have no idea what the ratios are.

Fifteen hundred deaths is being waved around as an example of Chinese failure. Compared to what? Without the merciless quarantining of a whole region, would it be 10,000 by now? More? I don’t know and nor does anyone.

Would a dissident doctor’s raising of the alarm in the West have prompted efficient and clear-eyed action? Or arse-covering, and a story on page 29 behind debates about wokeness at the Oscars? I don’t know and nor does anyone.

The melancholy truth of Covid-19, and the fires, and whatever comes our way in March (or the second half of February) is that global systems of complexity — markets, travel, communications, trade, data-driven politics, mass extinction, climate change, disease vectors — have now started to bust out of any human containment system, least of all territorially bounded unitary authority of that 19-century product of the railway and the telegraph, the nation-state.

Government (derived from the Greek kybernan, which means to pilot a ship) is going to need to be reconstructed on a global scale, but also at a local one.

Sadly, it’s likely that only real catastrophe — not this petty deck-game of Covid-19 — will provide the moment by which that occurs.

In the meantime, locked in cabins, watching free political porn, we idle in the shallows with no charted course; and desperate to disembark from the cruise-ship metaphors.