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"Cabin Fever: The Harrowing Journey of a Cruise Ship" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab

In early 2020, an ominous virus was rapidly spreading over several continents. On March 8th, Holland America's Zaandam departed Buenos Aires on a month-long cruise around Cape Horn, then north along the South American coast, through the Panama Canal, and toward its final destination at Port Everglades, Florida.

The 1200 passengers were Americans, Europeans and South Americans. In addition, there was a crew of 600 citizens of various nations. Unknown to the passengers “forty-eight minutes before Zaandam’s departure, the U. S. State Department posted a warning about Covid-19 that was as unprecedented as it was ambiguous: ‘American citizens, especially those with underlying conditions, should not travel by cruise ship.’”

Most of the Zaandam’s passengers were in their 70s and 80s, but Holland America claimed they had adequate medical staff and adequate medical supplies to meet any emergency. No special measures were taken to ensure safe conditions during boarding and crowded social events occurred on schedule. Further, the cruise line refused to offer refunds after passengers learned of the warning, convincing many who had saved for this once-in-a-lifetime cruise, to settle in.

Within days, several passengers aboard the ship became ill. As the liner approached ports of call, the captain was notified he could not dock the vessel there because each country was protecting its citizens from the deadly, contagious virus. The denial of safe harbor for the Zaandam by one country after another became a top news story for days. Food and water supplies dwindled, an overwhelmed medical staff was growing exhausted and medical equipment was in short supply. The “Pariah Ship,” as it came to be called, aimlessly wandered the oceans.

Journalists Smith and Franklin recount the onboard medical center's attempt to care for the nearly 200 passengers and crew members who contracted the virus. The medical center space was full to capacity, and the overflow of patients lined the hallway outside the facility. Some passengers were quarantined to their cabins, many of the rooms no bigger than a queen-size bed and some without a window. Since the dining areas were closed, food and clean linens had to be delivered to each cabin by overextended staff.

The captain used the intercom system to keep the passengers informed about efforts to find a port that would welcome them. Shocked to learn of the growing number of shipmate deaths, further horror struck the passengers as they heard that ports of call would not allow the ship to dock even to remove the dead.

The authors poignantly report on the claustrophobia and fear that set in as more passengers and crew became victims of the mysterious illness. And when the U.S State Department finally allowed the ship to dock in Florida, they disclose the difficulty surviving passengers had finding transportation to their homes because airlines did not want these “tainted” people on any of their flights.

This is a book which depicts the effects of inhumanity applied to suffering people, the power of fear and bureaucracy run amuck. It also is a story about the heroism of a few crew members who, in losing their own lives, saved the lives of many others on board.

A COVID-19 pandemic is a generation-defining event. Thanks to Smith and Franklin for reporting and documenting one aspect of the crisis by interviewing primary sources. “Cabin fever” is a real-life drama with moments of peril, tragedy, perseverance and acts of kindness. It is an emotional story, intimately told through the lives of a few crew members and passengers. A compact thriller, it is hard to put down.

About the Authors: Michael Smith is an award-winning investigative reporter at “Bloomberg Businessweek.” He has written about financial crimes, narcotics, human trafficking and environmental issues and was a leading voice reporting on COVID-19 outbreaks on cruise ships. This is his first book.

Jonathan Franklin is a journalist and TV commentator who has been based in South America for the past 24 years. He has written several books including “A Wild Idea,” a biography of The North Face business founder Doug Tompkins. Franklin writes about conservation, organized crime, and extreme survival.

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