Inspired by the Council’s Rachel Tanur Memorial Prize for Visual Sociology, we ask prominent scholars to select a visual artifact of this time that will help future researchers understand the Covid-19 crisis. For this contribution, Laleh Khalili (professor of international politics, School of Politics and International Relations, Queen Mary University of London) spoke with Saarah Jappie (program officer, SSRC Transregional Collaboratory on the Indian Ocean) about the repercussions of Covid-19 at sea, including stranded seafarers, floating oil storages, and the role of ships as vectors of illness.

Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

Saarah Jappie (SJ): You have chosen quite a striking image of the Diamond Princess cruise ship as your visual artifact of this time. Could you talk a bit about why you chose this particular image and what you think future researchers would need to know about it?

Laleh Khalili (LK): I have chosen a picture of the Diamond Princess as it’s berthed in Yokohama, Japan, and a person wearing a face mask is walking by it. In a way, the image encapsulates that particular moment in time when the Diamond Princess focused global attention on Covid-19 and became a vector of the illness itself. In fact, on the Johns Hopkins Covid-19 dashboard country list, the only noncountry included is the Diamond Princess, which had between 700 and 800 positive cases and dozens of related deaths on board. In addition to the Diamond Princess, there have been a number of cruise ships that have suffered extremely high numbers of casualties and cases—for example, the Zaandam. By including the cruise ship, I want to highlight the effects that this mode of transport has had on the movement of the illness and also to discuss the invisible elements of this broader story, of which there are very few images.

The significance of this image and the story behind it is several-fold. First, it demonstrates that the kinds of media for mobility, such as airplanes and ships, which we take for granted as an essential part of our globalized world in which cargo and humans move for both work and leisure, have become the pathways through which illness transmits. Of course, that is not at all new: the Kansas flu or the Spanish flu of the early twentieth century was transmitted by both commercial ships and warships at the end of the First World War, as soldiers and trade goods moved around the world in ships. This current pandemic’s resonances with historical vectors of illness are particularly interesting.    

Secondly, the image recalls the role of the affluent in early transmission of the disease. As we observe the global effects of the pandemic, it is becoming increasingly clear that those suffering from Covid-19 disproportionately tend to come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Yet, at least at the beginning of the pandemic, it was the affluent that spread it. For instance, we hear anecdotes about how the first cluster of cases in the Netherlands was actually of youths from the upper middle class who had come back from a ski trip in northern Italy where, of course, the concentration of the illness was quite high. That the cruise ship industry, which tends to facilitate quite expensive modes of leisure and travel, was hit very heavily in the earlier stage of transmission further illustrates this dynamic.

I also want to point out the experiences often forgotten in representations of cruise ships as vectors of transmission. Once the passengers leave, in most instances, the media camera shifts away from the cruise ships. Nobody pays attention to the people who actually work aboard those ships, who have also been disproportionate victims of the illness. The largest of the cruise ships usually carry somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 people on board. Of those, often a thousand or more people serve as crew members in the engine room, on the decks, in the wheel room, or as cleaners, cooks, and other kinds of service workers. The spaces in which they live aboard this moving city are far tighter and smaller than those in which the passengers live and, of course, that makes them far more vulnerable to transmission. In many recent instances, once the passengers disembarked, the ships were left afloat on the sea, with the crew unable to leave since ports had closed off entry to noncitizens. Even if workers were able to disembark in some places, they were unable to fly anywhere, either because flights had been cut back dramatically or, in the case of places like India, because inbound flights had been cancelled. This meant that many of these ships turned into essentially floating villages with people that had varying degrees of illness. In a couple of instances, workers on the ships had to be airlifted out because their conditions were so serious. This is a story that is not often told, and it is a staggering story, because at the last count there were 150,000 seafarers and crew members—not only of cruise ships but also of cargo ships—who are stuck at sea and unable to go home.

SJ: What else might this image tell us about Covid-19’s impact at sea more broadly, both on the ocean’s surface and beneath it?

LK: There is much more occurring on the surface of the sea. We have cargo ships, tankers, auto carriers, and all sorts of shipping that have also been affected by Covid-19. In the case of cargo, we have seen a dramatic drop in global trade, and in March, for which there are numbers, this has been somewhere between a 5 and 13 percent drop in volumes of trade. April was actually a much worse month, but those numbers are yet to be released. When global trade drops in such a dramatic way, it means that the number of ships traveling on the surface of the sea also drops dramatically. For example, on the Europe to East Asia line, somewhere upward of 400 trips have been canceled completely, so the cargo ships are not traveling.

Alongside this stagnation, we are experiencing a glut in oil because of a dramatic drop in demand and a concurrent, marked increase in supply due to the price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. This situation translates into many oil tankers being essentially converted into floating storage. So, in addition to floating villages, we have floating oil storages, which have to be maintained at sea. Consequently, you find thousands of people stuck on these tankers, waiting for the price of oil to rise or storages to open before they can offload. As with workers aboard cruise ships, these seafarers have been away from their families for months longer than anticipated and, in some cases, do not know how they will return home. Adding to the longevity of their time on the ships is the fact that, with the price of oil dropping, it has become very cheap to use longer shipping routes. Thus, we are seeing that whereas a lot of ships would usually travel from Asia to Europe via the Suez Canal, they now round the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. The journey is thus extended by three weeks simply because the cost of fuel for those extra weeks is actually cheaper than the cost of the Suez Canal fees. However, in human terms this means that seafarers on board that trip have to be at sea for three extra weeks. This is another example of repercussions that are not always visible or discussed, unless you are working in the very specialist field of maritime transport.

 SJ: Finally, what do you see as some of the pandemic’s lasting effects on society? And how do you think this experience will affect global mobility going forward?

LK: The optimist in me will say that, because of the recognition of both Covid-19’s unequal effect on different populations and its movement through conduits of capital and trade, political mobilization will emerge around issues such as equal access to health care worldwide and the conditions faced by workers in these systems of unregulated, free-for-all trade. Hopefully, regulations will be put in place to remedy those systems that create such inequality. However, the pessimist in me says that through this pandemic we have learned that capital thrives on crisis. This experience might therefore be used to support measures of austerity, to drive down wages, and to in fact worsen the conditions of trade. There will be an attempt to kick-start the economy in the way that we have seen, for example, in the US and to an extent in the UK, which will be detrimental to those that are most vulnerable. In terms of political mobilization, there is very little sense of which groups are currently organizing. However, we know that in the aftermath of pandemic, you can have both leftist organizing and right-wing mobilization, as we saw for example in the interwar period in Europe. Some mornings I wake up as an optimist and some mornings I wake up as a pessimist, and I hesitate to predict what will happen in part because the temporal contours of things, including how soon a reliable test or vaccination will be available, are very unclear. For me, it’s too early to tell exactly in which direction this will all go.

This conversation was conducted on May 15, 2020. It has been edited for length and clarity.