The Flying Dutchman

Which of us in childhood was not captivated by a print, or perhaps a portrait of the Flying Dutchman, “a legendary ghost ship that can never make port and is doomed to sail the oceans forever. … If hailed by another ship, the crew of the Flying Dutchman will try to send messages to land, or to people long dead. In ocean lore, the sight of this phantom ship is a portent of doom.”  Which of us thought such a thing could actually happen … in the Caribbean?


If the public thought that allowing a nurse with Ebola symptoms to fly commercial air was the worst possible blunder the administration could make, think again. ABC News reports that “a Dallas health care worker who handled clinical specimens from an Ebola-infected man from Liberia who later died is on a Caribbean cruise ship – where the worker has self-quarantined and is being monitored for any signs of infection, the State Department said in a statement.”

“The worker has voluntarily remained in the cabin and the State Department and Cruise line are working to bring the worker back to the U.S. out of an abundance of caution,” the Department of State said in the release.

An Ebola suspect on a cruise ship, that’s worse than letting the nurse fly by air.  At least the government is trying to get him back.

But wait. There’s more. According to the Washington Post, the cruise ship has been denied entry into Belize. “News reports out of Belize said the Carnival Cruise ship “Magic” was being kept offshore because of a health worker who had contact with an Ebola patient and that passengers were not being permitted into the country.” They won’t even let the Dallas health care worker transfer to shore so he can be flown back to the U.S.

The reports quoted a statement from the government of Belize: The Government of Belize was contacted today by officers of the U.S. Government and made aware of a cruise ship passenger considered of very low risk for Ebola. The passenger had voluntarily entered quarantine on board the ship and remains free of any fever or other symptoms of illness. The Ebola virus may only be spread by patients who are experiencing fever and symptoms of illness and so the US Government had emphasized the very low risk category in this case. Nonetheless, out of an abundance of caution, the Government of Belize decided not to facilitate a U.S. request for assistance in evacuating the passenger through the Phillip Goldson International Airport.


The party ship is now unwelcome. In a manner of speaking the Flying Dutchman sails the seas again. It won’t be long before pundits ask: ‘hey, if Belize can close  its borders to a whole cruise ship, then why could not president Obama close the US borders to West Africa?’

Of course at this point nothing makes sense any more. The time for sanity is over. If the president had taken some reasonable quarantine measures in the first place, instead of using policy to “message” the principle that West Africa should not be stigmatized, then two nurses might not be sick, dozens of health care workers would not be clapped in isolation, a major hospital would not be paralyzed, and millions or possibly tens of millions of dollars in contact tracing costs could have been saved.

None of which by the way stopped the Dallas specimen handler from getting on the cruise ship.

Under-reacting proved able to backfire as badly as over-reacting.  The policy of permitting flights from West Africa was presented with such overweening confidence that when it failed it demolished what it advocated in the most embarrassing possible manner.  Often, the failure of one extreme  opens the door to its opposite.  After the spectacular humiliation of Obama’s open door policy  nobody — not Belize at least — wants to commit an Obama.  They saw what happened, and whether or not it has any chance of happening to them,   whether it makes any medical sense or not, politicians the world over are under pressure to do the opposite of what Obama did.


Nerves are frayed. The Belizean reports:

“Confirmed with representatives of the Ministry of Health that they have indeed received a report that there is at least one passenger on board the cruise ship, Carnival Magic, showing symptoms similar to that of the Ebola virus. According to the report made to MOH, the person exhibiting the symptoms did not come ashore today. The ship is reportedly carrying 3652 passengers and a total population of 4633 persons.

“The Carnival Magic departed from Galveston Texas on Sunday, October 12 arrived in Mahogany Bay, Honduras on Wednesday October 15 and arrived in Belize this morning, Thursday October 16.
“The ship was scheduled to leave Belize en route to Cozumel this evening at 5pm. However, it is still anchored in Belizean waters near State Bank Caye.”

Whether this is panic or truth only time will tell. For the moment the president zigged, therefore others may reflexively zag. To let this poor unfortunate American health care person travel from the cruise ship to the airport would now be more than the local politicos would care to risk. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then being beaten over the head with your own phrase —  “out of an abundance of caution” — is the most heartfelt kind of irony .

One can only imagine what passengers of the cruise ship are thinking now. It’s no longer: what happened to my vacation?  It’s where the dickens can this ship make port? It wouldn’t be surprising if John Edwards presented himself to represent them in a suit against the federal government for saddling them with a Jonah. That would truly be astounding and yet … given what has already happened … would you really rule anything out?


Only yesterday Roger Simon asked, “how can it get worse?”  The saga goes on.

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