The Ruby Princess cruise ship. (Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

Luxury cruise ships the Ruby Princess, the Diamond Princess, the Grand Princess and the Costa Luminosa have a few things in common: for one, they are all owned by US giant Carnival Cruises; and they have all carried COVID-19 infected passengers.

In February, in one of the world’s first large outbreaks of coronavirus, the Diamond Princess remained moored in waters off Japan with hundreds of infected passengers on board. 

In March, nearly 2000 passengers had to be quarantined on US military bases after infected passengers were found on the Grand Princess.

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Next came the Costa Luminosa. Cruising off the coast of France, by March 15 the crew began wearing gloves and masks to halt the spread of coronavirus, which had already infected three people on board. The ship docked at Marseille after being turned away by other ports, according to an investigation by The New York Times.

At the same time, the Ruby Princess was heading to Sydney from New Zealand, also carrying infected passengers. It was allowed to dock and within 24 hours it was confirmed that four people on the ship had tested positive to COVID-19. 

One, a resident of Tasmania, is still in NSW being assessed at a Sydney hospital. One was taken unwell directly from the ship to hospital. It is not unusual for cruise ship passengers, many of whom are elderly, to be disembarked directly from cruise ships to hospital.

One presented to a Sydney hospital after disembarkation for testing.

The fourth confirmed case is a crew member who is in isolation on board the ship. Quarantine of other crew on board is underway in consultation with the on-board medical team.

The impact has this morning blown out to 48 confirmed cases of COVID-19 from the Ruby Princess — 27 in NSW and 21 interstate.

What is Carnival? 

Carnival is the world’s largest cruise operator, controlling several major cruise lines including P&O, Princess, Seabourn, Holland America and Cunard. 

The company is headquartered in Miami but incorporated in Panama — a tax haven. It is also dual-listed on the New York and London stock exchanges, and in 2019 recorded a full-year revenue of US$20.8 billion.

Carnival has a history of run-ins with the law. In 2016 it agreed to pay a US$40 million penalty for illegally dumping oil-contaminated waste into the sea, and trying to cover it up. 

According to The New York Times, it was the largest criminal penalty ever imposed for intentional vessel pollution, and the US Department of Justice put the company on notice. 

In 2019 it was caught in the act again, with federal prosecutors accusing it of more shocking violations, including discharging plastic waste into the water, falsifying records and, remarkably, interfering with court supervision of ships by sending in teams ahead of inspections to preempt environmental violations.

It pleaded guilty to these new violations and agreed to pay another US$20 million penalty in June.

Carnival is well connected politically and has long-standing ties with US President Donald Trump. Carnival Corp chairman Micky Arison is a friend of Trump’s, according to the Washington Post. Arison’s company reportedly helped sponsor the president’s reality show franchise The Apprentice over the years. 

Trump has said he wants to look after the cruise industry, as well as the airline and hotel industry.

“You don’t want to lose industries like this,” he said. “These are incredible industries. You can’t lose them.”

Carnival Corporation lists serving Los Angeles-based executive Jan Swartz as head of Princess Cruises and Carnival Australia.

Locally, the executive chairman of Carnival Australia is Ann Sherry, a 13-year veteran of the company who is known for her early high profile roles at Westpac Bank.

Crikey contacted Carnival’s public relations company for comment on Carnival’s role in managing the coronavirus on the Ruby Princess. We asked if it was aware there were passengers on board infected with the coronavirus, and if so why it allowed those passengers to leave the ship.

Carnival Australia spokesperson David Jones told Crikey its onboard medical team was “rigorous” in treating guests with flu-like symptoms.

“In line with existing protocols, the ship reported these cases to NSW Health, which in turn requested swabs to be provided following the ship’s arrival in Sydney, some of which subsequently tested positive for COVID-19,” he said. “It is practice the world over that tests for COVID-19 are not conducted on board cruise ships. The protocol is for swabs to be tested by the relevant public health authority, and this was done in relation to Ruby Princess.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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