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Following David and Sally: A coronavirus saga on social media

Mala Bhargava | Updated on February 19, 2020 Published on February 19, 2020

Sally and David Abel   -  Screengrab via youtube

There couldn’t be too many internet users who have not been following updates to the coronavirus, or COVID-19, scenario. The still mysterious disease has been largely restricted to the Hubei province of China but spreading its tentacles across the globe.

It was while scouring YouTube for news items and stories on the virus’s impact everywhere that I chanced upon a video, one of many, live streamed and uploaded by David Abel, a passenger onboard the luxury cruise ship, the Diamond Princess. The ship was going about its luxurious business when a passenger who disembarked in Hong Kong was tested positive for the coronavirus. To make sure no one else was carrying the disease, the ship was quarantined off the coast of Japan in Yokohama, from February 3. Measures to observe how the passengers were doing, as well as to stop the spread of the virus, were put into place and, very soon, passengers were confined to their cabins.

 

David and his wife Sally, an elderly couple from Britain, were the most regular with updates via lengthy videos put up each day, sometimes more than once, on Facebook and YouTube. Fairly upbeat at first, their videos showed a steady deterioration of mood, a setting in of anxiety, and finally, anger at the government in the UK which hadn’t reached out to them in any way while other countries began to evacuate their citizens and repatriate them to their own countries, even if that meant an additional 14 days in special segregated quarantine facilities.

Life on the ship

Each day, the count of people who inexplicably began to contract the virus rose with shocking numbers being reported. There were initially 3,700 passengers and crew aboard the Diamond Princess. In large batches, groups of passengers were taken off the vessel as they tested positive, some being moved to facilities in Japan. David described daily life on the ship. Passengers were allowed an hour of walking outside on designated areas on the ship and were to stay at least two metres away from each other. David and Sally chose not to as they found it was impossible to avoid others, despite a rostering of the walking privilege. They locked themselves up in their cabin, which thankfully was one of those with a balcony, and remained there all day and all night with each other for company — and communicated with their family and the world through their videos.

This is where social media stepped in. Over the days, large numbers of people began to follow the David-Sally confinement, sympathising, asking questions, and lending support. Each day, food — of pretty good quality, apparently — was delivered to the cabin with everyone donning masks for the process. Despite this, passengers continued to fall ill in large numbers. The Abels were cheerful enough, sharing details of their lives which involved those watching more and more.

“I feel I’ve this adorable couple all my life,” said one watcher. “Get off the ship, David,” advised another, “Let them take you to a safe facility in Japan because that ship is very dangerous now.” The Abels did not, however, want to go to facilities they hadn’t heard any good about and were worried about being among those who didn’t even speak English, being cut off from the internet and contact with their family, and the possibility of having to eat Japanese food, which they didn’t like and which was a concern for David in particular, being an insulin dependent diabetic.

It was as Canada, the US and Australia sent aircraft to evacuate their people that the mood really nosedived in David and Sally’s cabin. They couldn’t understand why the UK government couldn’t do the same. They couldn’t understand why no one at all even made an attempt to reach out to them. David appealed repeatedly to the government, eventually railing in anger at Prime Minister Boris Johnson for not caring or even wanting to deliberately keep them from coming home.

He even appealed to Richard Branson, almost half jokingly saying: “What will it take for you to send one of your planes to pick us up and get us out of here?” Although the crew and administration of the Diamond Princess spared no effort to look after the passengers, the cruise was no longer a holiday when people were confined to their cabins with nothing to do but wait for test results and news while they took their temperatures every four hours.

Media push

David’s social media followers more than empathised. They were infuriated. En masse, they bombarded the British government with messages and even calls. Richard Branson was appealed to on their behalf, the Foreign Office was hounded, the MP of the area where the Abels lived was spoken to. The passengers received no direct communication but the media which had by now picked up the story, churned out news on the Abels and the plight of the over 70 British on board.

The UK said they were working ‘around the clock’ to ensure the safety and welfare of the passengers and were considering the possibility of sending an aircraft. Branson did reportedly get take note of the plight of the Abels and other British passengers after pleas were made to him on social media and he did try and work with the government. But the Abels didn’t know this and were by then extremely anxious and stressed, even irritable.

And then, just after VLOG# 60 went up, everything abruptly went quiet. BBC reported that the Abels’ tests had come back positive. They felt well enough, but positive was positive and they were taken off the ship to either a hospital or a hostel in Japan. David’s social media following has been aghast and flooding his Facebook feed with comments. “There is going to be a time of quiet,” posted David, saying they were leaving for hospital soon. And a little later: “4pm 18th. Frankly I think this is a setup! We are NOT being taken to a hospital but a hostel. That’s where partners are sent waiting out their quarantine. No phone, no wi-if and no medical facilities. I am smelling a very big rat here. Waiting for the transfer xx”. “Are they trying to keep you quiet?” someone commented.

Ironically, the quarantine is to end on February 19 and the UK government now confirms they are working to organise a flight to England. But where are the Abels? Followers await news.

Update

February 19 ends the mandatory quarantine aboard the Diamond Princess. Passengers have begun disembarking in a process that will take a few days. Those who have been declared to be free of the virus will fly home though they will face a further 14-day quarantine elsewhere. Around 542 passengers and crew tested positive, including David and Sally, who are asymptomatic but positive.

According to David’s latest updates on Facebook and VOLOG #61, they will be taken first to a hostel and then to hospital in Japan. There has been much misunderstanding amid communication problems faced by them because of the lack of English speaking skills in Japan. But finally the Abels could talk to a doctor who spoke English and confirmed they were being taken to a facility and then, as hospital beds become available, for treatment.

Among those who will remain on board for now are 139 Indian crew members for whom there will be additional quarantine. Japan has been criticised for the decision to use the Diamond Princess as a quarantine base as the ship described as a ‘luxury destination in itself’ turned into a floating pétri dish with the ideal closed conditions for the breeding of the virus.

Published on February 19, 2020
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