We’ve been planning this cruise vacation for over 16 months. And now THIS! It just can’t possibly be. It’s surreal.
Yet despite all the warnings about the COVID-19 epidemic and our personal reservations, we’ve decided to go ahead. What are we thinking?
That’s a good question. But first, a little background on how human beings come to decisions and how our personal interests and beliefs introduce bias. The technical term for this is “confirmation bias”. From Wikipedia:
Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or strengthens one’s prior personal beliefs or hypotheses. It is a type of cognitive bias. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for desired outcomes, for emotionally charged issues, and for deeply-entrenched beliefs.
This bias is leveraged by social media through use of targeted messaging and ads (a.k.a. “filter bubbles” or algorithmic editing”) that prioritize information to show individuals what they will tend to agree with and exclude opposing views. Originally developed by social media companies to maximize advertising revenue, and is currently being exploited by our enemies, most prominently Russian trolls, to influence our electoral process and destabilize our country.
Which is why I stay off social media.
Except when I want to bombard you with my own biased views that I try to cleverly hide behind a veil of supposed authority gained from a few minutes of online research.
“If you can’t bedazzle ’em with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit” (unknown source)
But I digress.
With the confirmation bias of our emotional investment in this vacation in mind, here is how we came to decide to go. As a professional risk manager, I wanted to take a risk management approach because ultimately, we had to evaluate the risks we were taking vs the reward of going. For that, I needed data and facts. I chose three primary sources: the CDC, the State Department, and the cruise line.
The CDC is currently recommending to defer travel on cruise ships. This is because if an infected person boards, the likelihood of transmission is high due to the close quarters on the ship. This is especially true for people who are older (60 years +, and yes, that applies to both of us) because the death rates resulting from a COVID-19 infection are significantly higher for people in this age group due to the fact that your immune system gets weaker as you get older.
So, I’m 62 and Stella is 73 (today, happy birthday baby!) Graphically this does not look very good, but if you read the actual numbers, the death rate is still less than 10%. And this graph does not distinguish between those who have underlying health conditions (e.g., suppressed immune systems, COPD, etc.), from which neither of us suffer from.
The US State Department has issued a Level 3 travel advisory, which is to “reconsider” travel. (Note: the CDC and State Department rating systems are different). This is because the US Government has limited capacity to help you if you get stuck somewhere and you become infected with COVID-19. Additionally they are concerned about you picking up the virus and coming home and being an additional source of transmission. Plus Trump doesn’t want the numbers to look bad, so he’ll keep you floating on your infected cruise ship since you probably won’t vote for him anyway.
Finally, the cruise line: The cruise line that we’re on has not cancelled, but is implementing additional boarding protocols to identify potential carriers before they board. They will be doing temperature screening and asking a bunch of questions about where you’ve been and who you may have been in contact with. These protocols were instituted earlier this week after the cruise line industry met with VP Pence’s COVID-19 task force and came up with a plan to protect their customers to the maximum extent possible.
Now, objectively looking at the above, one might be tempted to follow the recommended deferral of travel — especially because our cruise line is offering to refund our payments in the form of a future cruise credit good through December 2021. But that doesn’t take into account the fact that we’ve invested our time, and more importantly, our emotions, into this trip. So let’s see how this emotional tie to this trip has affected our judgement.
First, the recommendations from the CDC and State Department are general in nature. They don’t take into account the specifics of our cruise itinerary and don’t break down the risk to tailor it to our specific circumstances.
Consider the cruise line and what ships were actually affected recently. We’re cruising on Celebrity, which is owned by Royal Caribbean. The ships that were infected with COVID-19 were from the Princess line, which is owned by Carnival. Carnival cruise lines have had the most troubles over the past number of years, from alcohol-fueled fights among the passengers, to poorly designed/maintained ships that have gone Dead In The Water (DIW), to senior officers not knowing, or at least willing to discuss with me, what lessons they learned from their troubles. Read this interesting article from the NYT that underscores the sloppy management aboard these particular ships
This is why we will NEVER go on a line under the Carnival umbrella again.
Next, consider how many cruise ships have been affected by COVID-19. Exactly two. Out hundreds (380 to be exact) that are out there. Also consider where they have been. These two cruise ships were involved with passengers from Japan, where the outbreak is severe. Our ship, the Celebrity Eclipse, has been cruising in South America, where the outbreaks are isolated and have very low levels of community transmission. And this ship has not reported any COVID-19 infections, which they are required to do. Now that doesn’t mean that somebody who is infected won’t sneak through the boarding process, but because everybody is getting screened multiple times, I would say that the chances of picking up the virus are as low as, if not lower than, other concentrations of people. Yes, I know that we’re rapidly banning any gatherings of 250 or more (in California anyway), but that’s not accounting for the risk reduction that screening provides. We just don’t have the resources to do the required screening for every gathering in every venue.
Third, our itinerary is entirely through countries that have minimal infections. We’re going to follow the West coast of the americas from Santiago Chile, and return directly to San Diego. So if we get on the ship, and the ship remains clear of the COVID-19 virus, then we are at low risk for subsequent exposure, even considering the tours, which are populated by the same folks that we’re sailing with. In fact, we’re going to be coming from a country that has a HIGHER incidence of community spread, so we’re going from an area of higher infection rates to areas of lower rates.
Fourth, the likelihood of being “stranded” without being granted permission to enter a port has been significantly reduced as a result of the meeting earlier this week between the cruise line industry and the CDC task force. One of the outcomes of this meeting was to establish a protocol to accept a stricken cruise ship and allow disembarkation in a controlled and safe manner. This addresses the situation of the Grand Princess, now disembarking in Oakland, that found themselves in limbo for many days. We shouldn’t have that problem now that the right protocols are in place.
Fifth, our cruise line hasn’t cancelled. Yes, they have a business to run, but they understand that if the risk becomes too great, they will not have future business. Princess cancelled their cruises for 60 days because of the noterarity of their infections and Viking cancelled their cruises because their business is primarily riverine cruises in Europe, where they’re having a pretty significant outbreak and the United States imposed a travel ban.
Sixth, I believe that due to the testing debacle in the United States, the true number of infections are lurking in the background and once we get the testing ramped up, we’ll see an explosion. The graph below shows what is happening in the other current hot spots. We’re on the brink of the exponential upswing experienced by these other countries, so hold on tight!
I would rather defer my exposure to that inevitability by 2-1/2 weeks. It’s good to see that instead of waiting for the incompetent Trump administration to act, state and local authorities are preemptively banning all large gatherings and are moving into the “mitigation” phase of controlling an infectious disease breakout, so maybe there’s hope yet.
Seventh, I was very concerned about somehow contracting the virus and then being a “spreader”. I guess that’s still a concern, but because community spread is happening in the United States already, I’m probably just as likely to get infected here as I would be on the cruise ship, and even if I do become infected on the cruise, then the disembarkation protocols will minimize the risk of exposure to healthy people. You really can’t say the same thing about the “self isolation” that is currently occurring here because you’re dependent on folks following the rules by themselves.
So, those are my variegated reasons for deciding to go. We have followed the CDC and State Department guidelines to “reconsider” travel, and our conclusion is to follow through with our plans. We’re not being told NOT to go, the cruise line and airline hasn’t cancelled, we have taken all of the precautions recommended by the CDC and cruise line, and we consider the risk acceptably low.
Time will tell if we made the right call. Wish us luck, as we wish you all the same.