The whole world's attention of late has been drawn at the serious risks of the coronavirus outbreak, which started at the province of Wuhan in China.
The illness, which had caused increasing cases of deaths and serious health failures, had been transmitted through contacts with people who had tested positive as carrying the disease and spread to countries beyond China. It had been given the name of COVID-19 by scientists and 'public enemy number one' by the World Health Organisation.
The severity of the impact of the disease was highlighted to the world by the grounding of the luxury cruise liner Diamond Princess when cases of people who tested positive to the disease became known to the health authorities of Japan where the passengers were to disembark. This led to 3,711 passengers and crew to be quarantined in the ship for 14 days, with most serious cases being taken to local hospitals.
The quarantine at the ship had finished and majority of the passengers had been flown home by their respective governments, with some opting to stay on in Japan. Australians had been taken in the quarantine station in Darwin where they are spending another 14 days.
Right from when the news about the quarantined ship broke out, I wondered how many passengers of Filipino heritage were in the ship. I was saddened that friends from Sydney were in the Diamond Princess and felt relieved to hear that they were not affected by the virus. Then in a conversation with a friend who lives in Melbourne, Versie Tamblyn, revealed that a friend of hers was also in the ship.
Through Versie, I made contact with Evangeline [Vangie] Vallejos Gregorio*
to invite her to share her experiences on the boat and then in the quarantine station in Darwin with the listeners of Radio Tagumpay.**
With Vangie's agreement, we conducted a live telephone interview with her on the historic Outside Broadcast of Radio Tagumpay in Bulwagang Rizal at the Philippine Consulate General in Sydney on February 24, 2020. I sent Vangie a few questions and we in The Australian Filipina are glad to share her responses that follow.
What was the itinerary of the cruise?
I have travelled many countries and cruised Alaska and Mediterranean Europe, This 14-day Southeast Asia Lunar Year Cruise with Diamond Princess from the 20th of January - 4th of February 2020 , was one of those travels I looked forward to, unaware of an unprecedented and challenging experience I will never forget.
We embarked in Yokohama, Japan on the 20th of January and then visited the ports of Kagoshima, HongKong, Da Nang and Chan May in Vietnam, Halong Bay in Hanoi, Okinawa, Taipei and back in Yokohama on the 4th of February.
What was your living quarter in the ship like?
There was no more single room when I was joining the cruise so the couple [Thelma and Fernando] who are also from Melbourne and who were with our group when I did the Mediterranean cruise convinced me to just join them in their cabin. This cabin has two double decks so it can accommodate four, though it is a small cabin.
There were two single beds which were occupied by my friend, Thelma and myself. Thelma’s husband Fernando occupied the double deck above her. Unfortunately we were in the inside cabin, with no windows.
How did you get the information about the quarantine?
On our last night on the ship, which was the 3rd of Feb, an announcement from the Captain of the ship came through the PA system. We were told that there will be a health screening happening and we will be quarantined for 14 days due to a confirmed Coronavirus known as COVID-19 found on one of the passengers who disembarked in Hongkong, five days after embarking from Yokohama.
Medical health officials believe that COVID-19 symptoms show within 2 weeks from last contact or exposure, hence 14 days quarantine minimises the outbreak of infectious diseases and covers the incubation period for the virus. The Japanese Health Ministry has the duty of care to protect the public health. So, it was very important for them to quarantine everyone on the ship. That is keeping in one place, people who are not sick but may have been in contact or exposed to someone who has a contagious virus. People found with symptoms or found positive get disembarked from the ship and placed in some medical facilities around Japan.
What was your reaction to the announcement of the quarantine?
The Captain's announcement created fear and panic in me, fear of getting infected and uncertainty of what’s going to happen to us especially being in an inside cabin, losing your freedom and being away from family. I was able to connect and contact my children straight away because Diamond Princess gave us free wifi and access to outside line from the phone in our cabin. As days passed, boredom sets in and so I had to keep myself busy and have some routines.
What was it like for you during the quarantine?
Five days later being quarantined on the ship, I developed fever. I was brought to the hospital two days after developing fever with my friend, Thelma, who had spiked temperature before me. I was happy to be out of the ship and be in a secured and good place but at the same time worried for those people especially Fernando, the husband of Thelma, who were still on the ship as the number of cases kept increasing. I underwent a full health screening like nasal and throat swabs, blood test and chest-ray. After a very long 4 days of waiting, I was relieved and happy to know that the result is clear and negative.
I believe that people should not be quarantined for no longer than is required because it is a very uncomfortable and unpleasant experience. It may result, for some people, some psychological and negative feelings like getting paranoid of getting infected with the virus, distress, depression and anxiety, boredom, post traumatic stress disorder after being in isolation and uncertain situations.
Although there’s mobile phone and internet access and social media like Facebook with family and friends, having restricted physical contact, wearing a mask and being confined in one place can be lonely and uncomfortable. To relieve the stress, boredom, loneliness, to clear my mind and cope better in this difficult situation, I pray, reflect and meditate, write journal, do sudoku and all sorts of puzzles and word games.
The accommodation in Darwin is very well set up. We were divided into small groups according to the result of your health screening or whether you had contact with someone found positive and we are housed in different areas. We can’t go to other areas and the use of swimming pool, basketball court, cinemas and other facilities are by areas so that they can easily track from which area the virus comes from if there is someone found positive.
What are your comments on your overall experiences so far?
Being in quarantine on the ship, in the hospital and in Darwin for a total of 28 days made me realise what is important in life and that our God has a plan for us and never abandon us even in the midst of darkness. This experience put back things in my perspective, who are the people and what things matter to me most. I’m just so thankful to the Lord for giving me good health, for keeping my spirit up and giving me that grace to accept the things that are thrown at me, to be strong, patient and to maintain that positive attitude in life.
Princess Cruises did everything they can to ease the stress and anxiety of all the passengers, crews and staff. They tried to make the life of everyone as comfortable as they can, looking after their needs physically, mentally, emotionally and financially whether they are still on the ship or in some medical facilities in Japan.
This unprecedented and unforgettable experience even though difficult and stressful will not stop me from my love of travelling and cruising.
Before I end, let me share this:
Life goes on, don’t waste it because time wasted can’t be returned. Make the most of it because your life is what you make it.
We have asked Vangie to share what a typical day was like in the ship's quarantine, hospital and in Darwin. The schedule can be found as attachment to this article. We want to thank Vangie for willingness and taking time to share feedback on her experiences, and Versie for being instrumental in making the interviews possible:
Vangie Vallejos Gregorio's Quarantine Schedule
7:30 wake up
9:00 -10:00 free time on the outside deck to get some fresh air and a bit of exercise (time is different everyday)
10:00 shower and doing the laundry
11:00 video call with my 3 kids
1:00 FB time with friends
2:30 afternoon nap
3:30 playing games on mobile e,g word games, sudoku
5:00 video call with family/friends
6:00 rosary with friends who are with me in the inside cabin
8:00-10:00 movie time
6:30 nurse comes to check temperature, blood pressure, etc
9:00 exercise, stretching, Zumba.
11:30 video call with children
1:00 FB with family and friends
2:30 -3:00 afternoon nap
3:00- 4:30 games on my mobile ( word games, sudoku)
5:00 stretch and walk around the roon for 45 min-1hr
7:30 movie time Netflix on my mobile
DARWIN -Howard Spring Accommodation Village
7:00 wake up
7:30 morning walk around the area
9:30 shower/ laundry
11:00 video call with children
1:00 FB with family and friends
5:00-6:00 Go out for a walk
7:30 Play word games on mobile and sudoku in a book
9:00 Movies on Netflix
*About Evangeline (Vangie) Gregorio
Vangie who is turning 69 years on March 8, is a Melbourne resident. She was born and raised in Paranaque, Metro Manila which she visits frequently. Her father is from Bohol and she visits her relatives over there from time to time. She became a widow at 36 with four children and has remained single up to now. Her three children are all grown up and have their own families. Her youngest child, Aiza died from a car accident in Melbourne at the age of 18 years; Aiza was just a passenger.
Vangie finished high school at St Paul’s College, Paranaque; completed BSEEd at the National Teachers College and Masters in Education at Philippine Christian University. She retired from teaching after a career spanning 42 years. She taught in a public school, Poveda School (formerly Institucion Teresiana), and La Salle Greenhills in the Philippines before migrating to Melbourne, Australia in 1996.
She had to do a one-year course in Graduate Diploma in Education at RMIT before she was given a certificate of registration to teach here in Melbourne. She taught at St Francis of Asissi Primary School for 17 years before retiring.
Gregorio has co-written some textbooks and skill books in Reading and English for use in primary schools in the Philippines.
**About Radio Tagumpay
Radio Tagumpay airs on Mondays, 2-4pm on Triple H 100.1FM in its studio in Waitara, New South Wales.
The two-hour live radio show can be streamed via: https://www.triplehfm.com.au/ . Violi Calvert, Criz Guce and Andrew Russell make up the current Radio Tagumpay team.
Vangie's interview can be accessed through this link.