We’re All on the Cruise Ship Now

Some of us get the privilege of cabin fever. Others bring room service.

A city—Philadelphia, apparently—seen on top of a cruise ship's hull.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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News cameras follow distressed cruise ships like seagulls, so when Japanese police quarantined the Diamond Princess off Yokohama in early February after coronavirus infections were recorded on board, it was hard to gauge the gravity of what was happening. A quarantined ship with a viral infection was interesting, even morbidly amusing, but not necessarily novel. The very word quarantine comes from the medieval Venetian practice of isolating sailing ships in harbor; norovirus outbreaks occasionally strike cruises and had already hit the Diamond Princess once; CNN not long ago spent a week devoting tornado-chaser energy to the Poop Cruise.

It turned out the Diamond Princess was an omen. Big cruise ships are like little cities, in the most facile way. They have restaurants and casinos and child care and art auctions and libraries. But socially, there are only two types of people on cruise ships: those who pay to be there and those who get paid. On the quarantined Diamond Princess, the upstairs-downstairs theme was even more dramatic: Vacationers were confined to their cabins, bored to tears, while a multinational crew served their needs but lived in squalor. In the end, 1 in 5 people on board became ill and nine died (1.3 percent), but the transmission pattern wasn’t even. Most passengers who were affected got sick before quarantine; most crew members got sick afterward.

Eight very long weeks later, we know that’s how it goes on land too: The coronavirus spreads via the mobile, global rich, who take airplanes and shake hands at conferences and go skiing. Then, after the stay-at-home order is in place, it comes for the lady who cleans the rental cars. You can see why small towns are rising up against plague refugees in BMWs, slitting their tires and cutting down trees in their driveways.

The cruise ship industry may not survive the coronavirus, but we’re all on the Diamond Princess now. A locked-down world is divided between shut-ins and the workers outside. Many of the latter people—bus drivers, grocery store workers, construction workers—toil under dueling fears of getting infected and going broke. In New York City, subway ridership has plummeted, but selectively: It’s fallen less in the places where people still have to go to work.

This is not entirely a class distinction: Doctors are working, dishwashers are not, and everyone is getting sick. But that seems likely to change as the lockdown begins to flatten the curve. Following the recommended health advice does require some degree of comfort. Keeping safe distance is a privilege. A home with the space to isolate a sick family member is a privilege. Not every job comes with a place to wash your hands. We’re all vulnerable, but some of us are now far more exposed than others.

Some of the downstairs workers fight the virus directly, like EMTs and nurses. Others, such as transit workers (seven have died of the coronavirus in New York so far), do the essential work that makes it possible. A third group attends to the upstairs crowd, bringing them what they need. This system may do more to slow the virus’s spread than one in which people run their own errands. But it does not decrease the odds for the poorly paid kitchen, grocery, warehouse, and delivery workers who do that much more work, permitting the rest of us to stay home.

For we happy upstairs few (more than 40 percent of the workforce in cities like D.C.; Austin, Texas; and San Francisco can do their jobs from home), this on-demand system is familiar, and it’s not from last summer sailing the Adriatic. One way to characterize the gig economy companies of the 2010s is that they made middle-class Americans feel rich. Just as dishwashers and vacuum cleaners approximated domestic help for an earlier generation, Uber gave everyone their own chauffeur. Blue Apron approximated the work of a sous-chef. Amazon built a personal assistant and then, with the acquisition of Whole Foods, hired so many people to buy other people’s groceries that the shoppers inside the store known as “Whole Paycheck” grew visibly more diverse.

Some of these services were technological miracles. Others were more precisely innovations in the labor market, connecting busy buyers to low-paid contractors. Not robots acting human but humans acting like robots.

Of course, this is what a city is, what a big city makes possible: People with so many specializations that you can eat yak soup or barbacoa tacos, and sing karaoke in Russian. But in a functioning city, this deep labor market is one of mutual dependency, where every seller is also a buyer, a barber hiring a personal trainer who hails a cab driven by a guy who had his hair cut by the barber.

On the Diamond Princess, in the plague city, you’re either getting cabin fever in the house or getting the coronavirus in the street. This indolence has always been part of the appeal of the cruise, a rented week as a Gilded Age aristocrat. (Cruise business went up after Titanic came out.)

David Foster Wallace likened the cruise experience to being in utero: “How long has it been since you did Absolutely Nothing?” he wrote. “I know exactly how long it’s been for me. I know how long it’s been since I had every need met choicelessly from someplace outside me, without my having to ask. And that time I was floating, too, and the fluid was warm and salty, and if I was in any way conscious I’m sure I was dreadless, and was having a really good time, and would have sent postcards to everyone wishing they were here.”

We upstairs people are certainly not having a really good time sheltering in place. We are filled with dread. Some of us are busy, in our way, with the kids, the cooking, the virtual meetings. But how long has it been since we did Absolutely Nothing? No time at all. Outside, downstairs, we are having our needs met—our important needs—by a workforce that grows sicker by the day for a few bucks an hour. Plus tips.