Julien Bergeron had his 61st birthday on Monday, but he spent the day reflecting on another milestone. He has now spent 26 days in various forms of quarantine and isolation, first as a passenger on the virus-stricken Diamond Princess cruise ship and then as a sick patient himself after he contracted COVID-19 and began to experience pneumonia-like symptoms.
Since Feb. 22, he has been in isolation at a hospital in conditions he likens to a cell, told to wear a mask even when he is alone. The Canadian government has released little information about citizens who remain in Japan. In total, 54 Canadians on the Diamond Princess tested positive for the coronavirus. As of last week, 34 of them were in hospital, with two in critical condition.
Mr. Bergeron has a window to see outside, but is otherwise alone, waiting for his immune system to beat back the virus.
The uncertainty is so great that he’s not even sure where he is.
“I am somewhere in Japan,” he said in an interview on Monday. The television in his room has broadcast spring training games of the Chunichi Dragons, based in Nagoya. “So I imagine that I am in this area,” Mr. Bergeron said.
He is more certain about his views on the decisions that led him to this place after he and other passengers were quarantined on the cruise ship for 14 days. By the end, both he and his wife had tested positive.
“The boat was not a good place for quarantine,” he said. When the virus began to spread on the cruise ship, he said, “they should have checked us. And the people who were not sick, they should have taken us off the boat” and flown the Canadians to Canada. “The other ones should have gone to hospital.”
The Canadian passengers have care packages from government officials, including local mobile phones – and some have received direct phone calls from Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne – but have little idea what comes next. Princess Cruises has helped to arrange for travel, but Air Canada has refused to accept people who were aboard the Diamond Princess, even those who tested negative for the virus, according to two passengers and a message from Princess seen by The Globe and Mail. When The Globe asked the airline about its policy, it replied with a single-sentence, unsigned e-mail: “We are now allowing passengers who are medically cleared to travel on our flights.”
Japanese authorities have acknowledged flaws in their response. “The ship was not designed to be a hospital. The ship was a ship,” Shigeru Omi, a former regional director for the World Health Organization and a member of an expert panel examining the outbreak in Japan, said last week. “Isolation was not as ideal as would be expected from a hospital.”
Some 705 people among the 3,711 people on the ship tested positive for the virus. Epidemiologists have seen the vessel as valuable for studying the behaviour of the virus. But the Japanese response has provoked much criticism, among passengers and, more recently, elsewhere in Japan, where people in areas with new outbreaks say the government was distracted by the cruise ship.
“There is no right answer for everyone with regard to moving potentially infected individuals,” said Christl Donnelly, professor of statistical epidemiology at Imperial College London. “An initial negative test does not mean the person is not incubating the infection. That is the reason for the 14 days of quarantine following the most recent exposure.”
And, she said, “repatriation of potentially infected people creates potential transmission risks which have to be managed during both transport and quarantine thereafter. I can understand the frustration of people currently held in quarantine, but they would not want to infect others.”
But that is little consolation for the Canadians still in Japan.
Among them are Greg and Rose Yerex, who have been locked inside the Fujita University Hospital with others in isolation, waiting until both test negative twice for COVID-19, the illness the virus causes. Rose was cleared, but went days without two negative tests for the virus. They have little notification of when medical workers will do the tests, and no clarity on when they will learn the results. They also don’t know what will happen if they are released from isolation, or how they could get home.
The confusion is compounded by the fact that neither has any signs of illness, and are trying to keep their distance even from each other as they wait for an unseen and unfelt menace to retreat from Mr. Yerex’s body.
“I feel like I’m Alice in Alice in Wonderland and I’ve just fallen down the rabbit hole,” Ms. Yerex said in an interview.
The couple walk the halls for exercise, eat three daily bento box meals delivered cold, chat on social media, submit to health checks and watch the small television set with channels in Japanese. They have books, although Mr. Yerex’s e-reader stopped functioning weeks ago.
“The quarantine of the Princess Diamond – it’s obvious now that it was the wrong thing to do,” he said. “It kind of made a mess of everything.” The couple have spent long hours in discussion, trying to pinpoint the moment they could have been exposed to a virus that has not proved dangerous to them.
“It’s just the flu. Maybe a violent one. But it’s the flu,” Mr. Yerex said.
Still, he is hesitant to assign blame. “I’m just displeased because I’m here,” he said. “I think everybody tried their damnedest to do the best they could do.”
Ms. Yerex is sunnier: “This is a great test for any relationship. Lock them in a room and don’t let them out for weeks at a time. You have to find the humour to help keep your sanity.”
“Or you cry,” Mr. Yerex added.
Craig Lee, a retired Ontario teacher, is in the same hospital, a new facility not yet open to the public. It’s “the Hilton of hospitals,” he said, complete with heated toilets.
”I think the Ministry of Health did as much as they could possibly do. This was unprecedented,” he said. He has been struck by the generosity of the local community, which has donated socks, pyjamas and underwear – and even sent boxes of doughnuts. In one of his bento boxes, he found a note in Japanese and English from the kitchen staff: “We hope you get well soon and quickly return home. This is a hard time for you. We stand beside you.”
“I was thinking I’m a stranger in a strange land and you took me in,” Mr. Lee said.
Still, he added, “it would be nice to be in Cornwall right now,” the location in Ontario where those evacuated by the Canadian government were in quarantine. “I certainly would have preferred to be on Canadian soil.”
For Mr. Bergeron, Monday brought some good news. His wife, Manon Trudel, received a second negative test, clearing her to leave isolation.
Mr. Bergeron remained in his room, waiting to recover. He has little to do but talk on the phone, watch sports on television and make use of his small space.
“I walk in my room,” he says. “Ten steps, then ten steps, then ten steps.
“I try to motivate myself, because there’s not a lot of things to do.”