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The cruise ship MS Zaandam, which has been afflicted with COVID-19 is seen off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on April 2, 2020.

MARCO BELLO/Reuters

Until Thursday evening, Holland America’s Zaandam cruise ship had been coasting around in limbo as sort of a floating reminder of the human capacity for callousness. It’s uncomfortable to reflect on how we reacted – especially given the handful of other cruise ships that remain stranded at sea.

The Zaandam, which left Buenos Aires on Mar. 7 and was supposed to dock in San Antonio, Chile, on Mar. 21, cut its trip short on Mar. 14. But for more than two uncertain weeks, it was turned down by several ports, even as it searched for a place to unload its many sick, and four deceased, passengers.

This pandemic has brought out some of the best of humanity. Private businesses have donated front-line supplies; factories have rejigged operations to manufacture essential materials; hotels are offering free rooms to health-care workers; restaurants are donating meals to those in need; neighbours are shopping for residents in isolation; people are suddenly saying “hi” to each other as they pass (at two metres’ distance) on the street.

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But the crisis has also brought out some of the worst: hoarding, price-gouging, selfish disregard for the rules – and apparently, on the more extreme end, leaving people to get sick and possibly die on cruise ships at sea.

February’s Diamond Princess quarantine experiment in Japan was a reminder of the fertility of contagion aboard cruise ships, even those that adopt strict isolation protocols. In an article published in the Journal of Travel Medicine in February, researchers estimated that 88 per cent of those who ultimately contracted COVID-19 on the Diamond Princess could have avoided infection had passengers been allowed to disembark when an outbreak was first reported.

Yet data can lose its potency in situations saturated with fear, and the fear, in this case, is not unfounded. Most regions are grappling with the realization they do not have the resources to cope with the sick already on land. Of course they don’t want to open their ports to vessels with thousands of passengers and confirmed COVID-19 cases aboard, even if keeping the ships at sea will just make the problem worse. So someone else – as the thinking goes – will just have to deal with it. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis had effectively said as much on Wednesday, when he declared his terms of disembarkation: “We are going to be willing to accept Floridians on board,” he told reporters. “My understanding is most of the passengers are foreign nationals.” A day later, Mr. DeSantis conceded to allowing all passengers who appeared healthy to disembark, though sick staff will remain in quarantine on the ship until they are no longer symptomatic.

There is a temptation for those of us on land – who had the good sense to avoid cruises after the Diamond Princess debacle – to dismiss the plight of those still stuck at sea as the unfortunate consequences of making a grievously dumb decision. The same sort of attitude is being directed toward federal inmates and their advocates, who are asking for early release for low-risk offenders to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in prisons, as well as toward Canadians who travelled abroad despite repeated warnings, and who have now found themselves stranded out of the country without a way to return home.

Yet there are practical reasons for rescue and reprieve. The more crowded the prisons, for example, the more likely the virus will spread throughout the inmate population. And it’s not as if there are special justice-system-only ventilators if inmates become grievously ill – they’ll end up at the same hospitals as everyone else, using up and competing for the same resources. Better to separate and isolate them, even if it means sending a few home early.

It is true the choices of the myopic and indulgent will negatively affect everyone else if, and when, governments come to their rescue. By slathering on their sunscreen and hopping aboard a velvet-trimmed incubator, for example, cruise-goers put themselves in a situation where the potential for infection was much higher than for those of us dutifully at home, washing our hands. Once back home, they’ll eat up resources that could have been used for those of us who will get sick despite being more careful. It’s indisputably unfair. But it’s also not right, morally speaking, to just desert those who made poor decisions, however badly timed they might be.

We all flout the rules and behave carelessly when we think it’s safe to do so. These people simply had the misfortune (or perhaps the obtuseness) to do so during a time of global upheaval. But the punishment for that should not be a risk of possible serious illness or death: That is a level of cruelty to which we should try not to succumb.

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Of the many things at risk during this pandemic is our collective sense of humanity. Leaving people to die at sea is a test of how much we’re willing to lose.

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