The cruise industry’s response to COVID-19 is a spectacular crisis management fail

A major health outbreak on board is a foreseeable crisis management risk for the cruise industry. And yet, it completely failed to prepare for, or appropriately respond to, the impact of COVID-19, Tony Jaques explains. The Ruby Princess, for example, discharged 2,700 untested passengers in Sydney and is now linked to almost 20 deaths.

One of the basic principles of good crisis management is to prepare for the most obvious crisis risks. But the global cruise ship industry seems to have failed miserably.

A headline in the New York Times said it all: “Passengers fell ill with coronavirus… And the ship sailed on.”

Cruise ships are now recognised as one of the single worst sources of the disease, and one of the most badly-managed. Look no further than the Ruby Princess, which discharged 2,700 untested passengers in Sydney and is now linked to over 600 confirmed infections and almost 20 deaths.

The cruise industry failed to prepare for the COVID-19 crisis

It’s a story repeated around the world, and as recently as last week, eight ships with about 6,300 passengers were still at sea, despite the pandemic, including one vessel with 128 people who had tested positive.

Cruise industry leaders say the coronavirus caught them “without warning.” Yet the first outbreak was on the Diamond Princess, quarantined in Japan on 4 February, and operators continued to launch cruises as late as mid-March – after the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic.

Indeed, when the cruise industry finally recognised the crisis and announced its own pledge to stop sailing, on 13 March, USA Today reported at least one ship departed after the midnight deadline and eight or more others set sail in the hours leading up to the announcement.

So what can we learn from this crisis management fail? For several years, I have promoted the concept of ‘natural’ crises. This doesn’t mean they result from natural disasters. They are natural to the organisation. They are the industry-specific, or company-specific crises which are most likely, which are reasonably predictable, and which should be clear priorities. They are the crisis risks which should keep mindful managers awake at night.

For any cruise line, those ‘natural’ risks must include: a ship sinks, a ship catches fire or breaks down at sea, or there is a major health outbreak on board.

The Ruby Princess has attracted headlines for all the wrong reasons

With our lives dominated these days by coronavirus, it’s easy to forget norovirus, – or gastroenteritis – the commonest form of food poisoning, which annually kills about 200,000 around the world, many of them young children, and sees an estimated 20m+ cases every year in the USA alone.

It often strikes in nursing homes and restaurants and hotels – and is also a well-known crisis risk on cruise ships. Way back in 2014, I wrote about how the Royal Caribbean vessel Explorer of The Seas turned back to New Jersey when more than 600 passengers fell sick due to the highly infectious norovirus, reportedly the largest gastrointestinal illness outbreak in a cruise ship in 20 years.

CEO Richard Fain unhelpfully responded at the time: “Most people understand just how common a thing this is.” A week later, the Caribbean Princess turned back to Texas when 165 passengers and 11 crew came down with norovirus. The company spokeswoman initially said the cruise had been cut short by fog, but later claimed “the pattern suggests the illness was brought on board by passengers”.

Blaming the victims may have seemed smart, but it led Time Magazine to publish its list of the worst norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships in the previous five years – and Princess Cruises had five out of the list of 13.

Fast forward to 2020, with class actions around the world against cruise lines arising from coronavirus, and in Australia, a homicide investigation and a Commission of Inquiry into the Ruby Princess debacle.

These legal proceedings will no doubt take months, if not years, to resolve, but it is already very evident that, after years of warnings, the cruise ship industry should have been properly prepared for a health crisis – but wasn’t.

Tony Jaques is the director of Issue Outcomes


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