Picture: 123RF
Picture: 123RF

Most readers will be familiar with the tale of the Flying Dutchman, a ghost ship that can never make port, and is doomed to sail the seas forever.

While the tale originates from the 17th-century heyday of the Dutch East India Company, the famous VOC that gave SA the twin blessings of Jan van Riebeeck and a wine industry, there have been many versions over the years. My favourite is in a book called Scenes of Infancy, written by John Leyden and published in 1803:

"It is a common superstition of mariners that, in the high southern latitudes on the coast of Africa, hurricanes are frequently ushered in by the appearance of a spectre-ship, denominated the Flying Dutchman ...

"The crew of this vessel are supposed to have been guilty of some dreadful crime, in the infancy of navigation; and to have been stricken with pestilence ... and are ordained still to traverse the ocean on which they perished, till the period of their penance expire."

In some versions of the myth, a sighting of the Flying Dutchman is an omen of doom — according to Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott, "the worst of all possible omens".

At this point, dear reader, you’ll be thinking to yourself: "Nice! Every other columnist is writing about the coronavirus, so it’s a bit of a relief to read a history lesson plagiarised from Wikipedia. Kudos to Chris for not taking the easy topic."

Alas, the pestilence reference should have been a giveaway.

I couldn’t help thinking of the Flying Dutchman when I read the story of the Holland America cruise ship Zaandam. Like the mythical ghost ship, the MS Zaandam seemed doomed to circle endlessly, unable to make port, cursed with the pestilence of Covid-19.

In the slightly more prosaic prose of website Business Insider: "The MS Zaandam was a mystery cruise long before the fever began to spread about its decks. The ship’s itinerary was cancelled on March 15 due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and the fact that South American ports were closing themselves off to cruise ship traffic.

"The captain announced that the ship would sail ‘north’, to allow guests to disembark in an undetermined destination … Within days, the mystery around the ship would darken, the central question within its decks shifting from where the ship would go to if its passengers would ever reach home."

The cruise ships of the world have become both a metaphor for the lockdown, and a morality tale about uncaring consumption.

The latest Bloomberg stats show that at least six cruise ships are still at sea with crew and passengers. As The Guardian poetically puts it: "The plight of those still adrift highlights how cruise ships have become a kind of pariah of the seas, with cities wary of becoming the next home for a potentially infected vessel."

One particular version of this morality tale could be called "The Princess and the Covid-19". Princess Cruises apparently had to pile Princess liner disaster upon Princess liner disaster before it got the message that it was feeling the effects of Covid-19 and needed to abandon its cruises.

It’s not just Princess — many cruise ships are being exposed for not doing enough to protect their passengers. The Miami New Times revealed that Norwegian Cruise Line, for example, was telling its salespeople to minimise the threat of coronavirus. One sales pitch script advised telling anyone who brought it up that the virus "cannot live in the amazingly warm and tropical temperatures that your cruise will be sailing to".

Another script claimed: "The coronavirus can only survive in cold temperatures, so the Caribbean is a fantastic choice for your next cruise".

But to return to Princess Cruises: Australia’s New South Wales has launched a criminal investigation into the mishandling of the Ruby Princess cruise ship, now the single-largest source of Covid-19 cases in Australia. This ship’s 2,700 passengers were allowed to disembark, even though many displayed symptoms of Covid-19 and respiratory illnesses.

"At least 662 people linked to the cruise have been diagnosed with Covid-19, more than 10% of Australia’s total cases," The Guardian reports.

The total number of deaths from the Ruby Princess stands at 11 — which, at time of writing, accounts for more than 30% of all Australian Covid-19 fatalities.

The Diamond Princess, which docked in Yokohama in the early days of the outbreak with 3,000 quarantined passengers, of whom 700 tested positive, has had eight fatalities so far.

No holiday: The Diamond Princess registered 700 Covid-19 infections and eight fatalities. Picture: Kyodo News/Getty Images
No holiday: The Diamond Princess registered 700 Covid-19 infections and eight fatalities. Picture: Kyodo News/Getty Images

According to The Guardian: "The numbers climbed so high that the ship gets its own line in the World Health Organisation data on infections by country."

The Grand Princess, which docked in San Francisco, had at least 103 passengers test positive, and three deaths.

The Coral Princess has just arrived in Miami, with 12 positive cases and two deaths.

There are 18 Princess cruise ships, but you get the idea ...

It’s hard to feel too much sympathy for cruise companies, given their creative tax-avoidance strategies. And it’s very tempting to draw parallels with Australia’s policy around forcibly making asylum-seeker boats turn around and go back to their country of origin, or indeed the way refugee boats are regarded in general by the type of person you imagine as the stereotypical cruise ship passenger.

But that would just be prejudice on my part, and I do feel a shiver of sympathy for those passengers stuck on board, some in windowless cabins, struggling to find a port that will accept them. It must be as terrible an experience as that of our mythical mariners on the Flying Dutchman — though at least they didn’t have to endure shipboard musicals and all-you-can-eat meals.

In a way, however, how we think about the tribulations of the cruise passengers and crews can be an indicative lesson.

The lockdown has forced me to join the neighbourhood social media group — that paradoxical amalgam of, on the one hand, entitlement, nastiness and stupidity, and, on the other, kindness, forbearance and charity.

Apparently, in the more affluent of our suburbs, there are still many people who believe that they are entitled to be treated differently to their fellow South Africans.

On one post, these are the people who demand that the "guvvermint" do something, preferably involving the death penalty, about the taxi drivers who seem to think they are above the law and can just jump red lights.

On the next post, the same people are accusing others of being sneaks and community traitors for pointing out that they shouldn’t be walking their dogs or jogging along the road.

I’ve mentioned this famous SA motto before: it’s only a crime if someone else is doing it.

Like the cruise ship passengers, stuck in their cabins as victims of their own affluence, people in lockdown are subject to the decisions of external institutions. They chose to take a cruise despite the warning signs, and we chose our government. Yes — despite the warning signs. And we’re both reliant on poorly paid, under-appreciated workers to keep our ecosystem functioning at some personal risk to themselves.

In lockdown, the cruise passengers must find the trappings of their holiday cabins hard to bear, and it seems as if many of our more fortunate South Africans are starting to think that having Netflix and a garden isn’t enough. People in shacks are allowed to take a walk when they need to pee, why can’t I go for a swim?

The cursed sailors of the Flying Dutchman must be chortling. We’re not doomed to circle endlessly, but instead to be fixed in one place while the world circles around us.