“What would it take for you to defy expectation? Ignore the rules? Break the law?”
This is a thought experiment in the style of those proposed by SavingNinja. The one thing asked of participants is for a stream of consciousness outpouring of thoughts rather than a carefully polished article. Here goes…
“A luxury destination in itself, anticipate the excitement of discovery on this jewel of the sea” stated the brochure. A newly refurbished ship operated by over 1000 staff, catering to whims of 2500+ wealthy and predominantly elderly passengers, as they cruised around Northeast Asia.
In January 2020, that bold marketing claim became disturbingly true in a very unanticipated fashion.
A passenger boarded the ship in Japan.
A few days later they disembarked in Hong Kong.
Sometime later they felt unwell and visited a local hospital, where they were diagnosed with the novel coronavirus that has subsequently become known to the world as COVID-19.
Meanwhile, the cruise ship had set sail for the return trip back to Japan.
Upon arrival, it was met by local health authorities. All the passengers and crew on board were tested for the disease.
The remaining 3700+ passengers and crew were locked down in quarantine on board for at least a fortnight.
Think about that for a second.
Cruise ships are infamous for being germ factories. Large numbers of people living in close quarters, combined with buffet-style meals, provide a veritable wonderland for nasties like norovirus and gastro to make themselves at home.
An upset stomach or a case of the squirts is typically a minor inconvenience.
COVID-19 was a morbidity that had so far proven fatal to slightly more than 2% of its patient cohort.
Work life balance
It is often said that a large cruise ship resembles a floating city. Looking after thousands of paying passengers requires a diverse multitude of staff performing activities ranging from customer-facing hospitality and entertainment roles, through to unglamorous behind the scenes janitorial and sanitation duties.
In what must be incredibly difficult circumstances, the ship’s crew have continued performing their duties to care for the guests.
Cooking and delivering meals to each stateroom.
Cleaning and servicing passenger cabins when required.
Each interaction involves dealing with bored, frustrated, and scared passengers who have found themselves confined to their quarters. All of whom were long since supposed to be elsewhere. Such trying circumstances rarely brings out the best in people.
Each interaction potentially exposing the crew to the disease.
Many people who work on a cruise ship are initially attracted by the lure of free room and board. At the more junior end of the pay scale, they earn in the region of USD$700 per month.
If that employee were performing a standard 40-hour working week, at those pay levels they would be making roughly USD$4 (or GBP£3) per hour.
Except working on a cruise ship isn’t your typical Monday to Friday 9 to 5 gig.
Pay is low.
Hours are long.
Conditions are challenging at the best of times.
The crew find themselves quarantined alongside the passengers. Expected to continue performing their jobs while each interaction carries the risk of catching a disease that has the whole world panicking.
How would you respond if you found yourself in a similar circumstance?
Is your monthly pay packet worth risking your life for?
What level of income would it take for those risks to seem acceptable to you? The way that emergency responders, mercenaries and the military, or security guards at football games do for a living?
Breaking the rules
Would you seek to escape? Sneak off the ship? Leap overboard?
Violate the quarantine?
Break the law?
A woman in Russia reportedly short-circuited an electronic lock on a hospital ward to flee quarantine.
Social media was aghast at tales of a tourist suffering the flu evading screening to holiday in France.
This poses an interesting question: At what point does the desire for self-preservation trump our innate conditioning to toe the line? Obey the rules? Do what we are told?
Some people never reach that point.
For example, the engineers who undertook suicide missions during the containment of the Chernobyl or Fukushima nuclear disasters. Some made the noblest of sacrifices. Others may have been coerced or threatened to the point where the alternative was worse than the prospect of certain death. Either way, their selfless acts saved many thousands of lives.
For others, there would be no hesitation in putting their own interests first. Placing the desires of the individual over the happiness, health, and mortality of hundreds. Thousands. Perhaps millions.
Yet selfishness is rife in society. We see it every day.
Able-bodied suits occupying seats on public transport, while pregnant women or people on crutches are forced to stand.
Posers delaying the crowds while they take vanity selfies in front of postcard sites and monuments.
Vapers and smokers exhaling noxious clouds into the path of their unwitting fellow pedestrians.
Long haul flyers who recline their economy class seats, inflicting hours of misery on those seated immediately behind them.
None of these things is illegal, yet all involve one person’s selfish actions adversely impacting others. Rarely do those exhibiting such behaviours spare a thought about the consequences of their actions.
A recent court decision in Spain set the legal precedent that employers could dock a worker’s pay for time spent on coffee breaks. There was a predictable burst of outrage from workers, arguing at the injustice of not being paid by their employers for the time they spent outside the office not working.
When coffee-loving employees bill their employers for time not worked, is their behaviour reasonable?
Or are they committing fraud? Effectively stealing from their employer?
Is that any different from pilfering stationery, toilet paper, or Nespresso capsules from the office?
How about completing personal administration tasks or reading social media while on the job?
Was the Spanish court correct? Were the employees stealing?
Now substitute liberating stationery for a stealing a laptop.
Trade those five minutes spent organising a weekend barbeque for a whole day billed but not worked.
Exchange the Nespresso capsules taken for the employer’s entire customer database.
Many of us would baulk at committing these more serious offences. Yet the issue is one of scale, not ethics.
School children the world over have been walking out of class and staging protests against climate change. Understandably concerned that they will inherit a planet which their forebears have broken.
In doing so, their actions probably break a multitude of laws that, if enforced, could have landed both themselves and their parents in hot water.
Losing welfare benefits.
Anti-association laws originally brought in to combat bikie gangs.
Neglect or endangerment, if the child found themselves unsupervised by a responsible adult “in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to health”. For example, protesting alongside outlawed Extinction Rebellion campaigners. Or baiting nervous riot police who are high on adrenalin.
In this case, the children are consciously choosing to break the rules in order to stand up for what they believe in. They have a naïve optimism that if enough of them choose to protest then there will be too many to viably punish. The biometric cameras used to record the participation of the attendees would suggest otherwise.
Which brings me back to the pot washers and janitors onboard the quarantined cruise ship.
If finding themselves in such potentially life-threatening circumstance didn’t prompt at least some of them to take their chances by breaking the rules, then what would? If not now, then when?
Where is the tipping point?
When do you defy the norms? Go against cultural expectations? Blow the whistle? Jump ship?
At what point do the needs of the one outweigh the wants of the many?
What would you do in their place?
- Al-Arshani, S. (2020), ’11 crew on the quarantined coronavirus cruise ship have contracted the disease — and the rest are afraid they’ll be next’, Business Insider
- BBC (2020), ‘Spanish court rules workers can have pay deducted for smoking breaks‘
- Bindman, P. (2020), ‘Chinese tourist says she evaded coronavirus checks to fly to France’, The Guardian
- Crew Center (2020), ‘Diamond Princess Sailing Schedule‘
- Dexter, R. and McCauley, D. (2020), ‘Coronavirus outbreak: 70 more test positive on cruise ship, evacuation planning under way’, Sydney Morning Herald
- Gigova, R. (2020), ‘Russian woman escapes coronavirus quarantine by short-circuiting the lock’, CNN
- Gov.uk (2020), ‘The law on leaving your child on their own‘
- History.com (2020), ‘The real story of the Chernobyl divers‘
- Matousek, M. (2019), ‘There’s a strict hierarchy on cruise ships that creates a huge gap between the highest and lowest-paid workers. Many of those at the bottom make less than $20,000 per year.’, Business Insider
- Princess.com (2020), ‘Diamond Princess® Cruise Ship‘
- Princess.com (2020), ‘Updates on Diamond Princess® Cruise Ship‘
- Sonnemaker, T. (2020), ‘2,000 iPhones to passengers stuck on a cruise ship where nearly 200 coronavirus cases have been confirmed’, Business Insider
- Tabuchi, H. (2013), ‘Masao Yoshida, Nuclear Engineer and Chief at Fukushima Plant, Dies at 58’, The New York Times
- Watts, J. and Murray, J. (2020), ‘School climate strikers join Valentine’s Day protests across world’, The Guardian
- World Health Organisation (2020), ‘Q&A on coronaviruses‘
- Worldometer (2020), ‘COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak‘