Singapore restarting cruises: Boost for economy, but not plain sailing

It may sound like a good way to help the economy, but it could easily be a disaster waiting to happen.

The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) has announced that it will allow pilot “cruises to nowhere” from next month, with safety measures in place.

This sounds fine, in theory. It’s true that Singapore risks harming its economy if it does not return to some form of normalcy. But when it comes to cruises, the risks may outweigh potential rewards.

Consider what cruises entail in the first place. Passengers eat, they take part in activities, and they generally relax outside of their cabins. Even accepting that each cruise ship carries only half the number of passengers it can normally accommodate, it would still host more than 1,000 people over a period of days.

One of the participating ships in the pilot project has a normal capacity of more than 3,300 and the other has a maximum capacity of 4,900. And that is without counting the crew.

Those on board are supposed to wear masks. But we know that while masks do reduce the transmission rate, they do not completely stop the coronavirus from spreading. And passengers will not be masked during meals.

There is also the risk of transmitting the virus through common surfaces passengers touch while they help themselves to the food. And even if the food is served at the counter by crew, there are still many possible contact points.

Do you stop passengers from touching walls and handrails when they go for a stroll on deck? Or from talking to one another when taking part in activities? There are just so many possibilities for Covid-19 transmission.

One might argue that the same may be said of people in shopping malls or supermarkets. But they do not mingle for several days. Nor are they stuck together in an enclosed space, interacting through on-board activities.

People excited or having a good time tend to talk louder, increasing the transmission risk.

Expert opinion on the risks posed by such cruises is divided.

Professor Dale Fisher, a senior infectious diseases consultant at National University Hospital, and Professor Ooi Eng Eong of Duke-NUS Medical School’s emerging infectious diseases programme see the move as another step towards normalising life here.

“It’s not only about prioritising the safest activities; there is a balance with social and economic factors,” said Prof Fisher.

Prof Ooi agreed that it is important to balance the risks against the livelihoods of many, adding: “It would be the same as any staycation.”

Dr Asok Kurup, who chairs the Academy of Medicine’s Chapter of Infectious Disease Physicians, is more concerned that cruises usually attract older people – who are more vulnerable to Covid-19.

He said: “Socialising is another reason older folks go for cruises, (play) mahjong, et cetera. The skew towards more elderly passengers in such settings, in possibly confined environments, means the need to be super vigilant and have very thorough policing of measures.”

How is that going to happen?

Quantum of the Seas, seen docked at Marina Bay Cruise Centre last year, is one of the ships allowed in a pilot “cruise to nowhere” from next month. 

The STB said the ships must have “measures to discourage close contact and inter-mingling between groups”. Discourage, not prohibit.

People may intermingle, gather and chat. Even if rules are laid out, they may be breached. Even if the crew take action against paying passengers, the damage may have been done.

The website of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the United States – the worst-hit country in the world – says: “Cruise ships pose a greater risk of Covid-19 transmission than other settings” as they “are typically more densely populated than cities or most other living situations”. It advises Americans to defer cruise travel.

Professor Alex Cook, vice-dean of research at the National University of Singapore’s Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, is also dead set against such cruises.

He asked: “Are cruise ships the hill we want to die on?”

He pointed out that there is no guarantee that all passengers are free from Covid-19.

A passenger who gets infected the day before boarding “is almost certainly going to test negative on embarking”, said Prof Cook.

During incubation, the person would test negative – but could turn positive in a day or two, in other words, during the cruise.

Should an outbreak result, he warned, “we’ll need to be ready to handle the contact tracing and quarantining that would be necessary”.

The CDC said there is also risk in “crew living and working in close quarters in a partially enclosed environment where social distancing may prove challenging, even with a limited number of people on board”.

Should a crew member be infected but be asymptomatic, it could “keep the virus circulating from one voyage to the next”.

The STB says it is allowing such cruises “in line with the calibrated resumption of economic activities in Singapore”.

Yes, it is important to keep the economy going. And yes, many people here want to go on holiday again. But the risk appears too high. The outcome is uncertain – it could be beneficial or highly damaging.

In the best-case scenario, no transmission occurs on board and everyone has a good time.

But the worst that could happen – and there is no guarantee that it won’t – is a major outbreak that, if spread to the community by asymptomatic carriers, could bring more economic activities to a halt.

Surely there are better ways to kick-start the economy?

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