The Diamond Princess captain insists he’s not a hero, and he’s right. He’s something much better.
One expects Gennaro Arma to be dignified, eloquent, and eminently professional. His handling of the COVID-19 outbreak as the Captain of the cruise ship Diamond Princess garnered him international recognition and praise for his level headed, calm demeanor in the face of a rapidly unfolding crisis. One does not, however, expect him to be funny. But he is. Acutely aware of the transitory nature of his fame and its inevitable limits, on the mention that his is a story tailor made for Tom Hanks, he bursts into laughter. “Of course,” he says. “Whenever there is an emergency, you immediately think of Tom Hanks.”
Emergency is one of those words that tend to get a bit overused, so much so that they run the risk of losing any meaning at all when we really need them. To be fair, there are few words that accurately describe the moments we’ve all lived in the past year, where our everyday lives are put on hold and we have a choice about the people we want to be during that pause. We have even begun to invent new words or reshape existing ones to try to articulate the change, the flux, the fear. But Gennaro Arma had to find them, tasked as he was with being the voice of reason during an unreasonable time. His words would be broadcast around the globe, and later recorded in La lezione più importante, his memoir of the experience in Tokyo Bay.
The quarantine that placed almost 4,000 people into isolation aboard Diamond Princess was exceptional at the time, as novel as the disease that necessitated it. And we tuned in, through live video feeds from passengers and throngs of media camped at the port of Yokohama, with the same rapt attention as we’d watched Chilean miners or Thai schoolchildren in years before. We couldn’t know that this floating city would become a microcosm for the world we once thought we knew so well.
In the year that has passed since those fateful weeks in February 2020, words have taken on new meanings. Now quarantine is an everyday feature, isolation a persistent state, and pandemic a baseline condition. If the tale of Diamond Princess has been archived in the annals of our minds, it has less to do with the event itself and more to the world that it presaged. And if those 27 days were an emergency then, a year later they are but a prelude.
There is a word, Ubuntu. It means, roughly, I am because we are. It is a powerful word. It is an apt word, in this case.
Gennaro Arma and Diamond Princess set sail from Yokohama, Japan on January 20, 2020 for a two week cruise largely in the South China Sea, stopping over in iconic destinations such as Kagoshima (‘the Naples of Japan’, as he writes), then along the Chinese coast, to Hong Kong and Vietnam before turning back to its port of call. Neither Arma nor the ship were strangers to the route, nor to the task at hand. Diamond Princess, or ‘the Diamond’ as it is colloquially known, was inaugurated in 2004 and is one of sixteen ships in the Princess Cruises fleet, which collectively carry more than one million passengers a year to destinations around the world. A life long sailor, Arma had worked for Princess Cruises for over two decades and stood at the helm of Diamond Princess since 2018. He was present at the ship’s inauguration.
The first cases of coronavirus had been reported in China when they set sail and, following WHO recommendations, both the cruise company and the port authorities had added extra layers of health and safety precautions to mitigate the possible spread of infections. Diamond Princess pulled into Hong Kong during what should have been Lunar New Year celebrations, an event normally marked by breathtaking pyrotechnic and light displays visible all over the city, and in particular from the port. But on this trip, they arrived in a hushed city whose isolated citizens celebrated in solemn silence. The already elevated protocols were augmented: temperatures were taken before boarding, and anyone who had traveled to the Wuhan region of China in the previous two weeks were prohibited from embarking. It wouldn’t be enough.
Things moved fast, with a pace that has since become all too familiar to the rest of the world. In the early hours of February 2, Arma first learned that a passenger who had disembarked from the ship a week prior was under observation as a potentially positive case of coronavirus. By the evening of February 3, he would announce that the ship was being placed under quarantine inspection. Over two interminable days, it became clear that the voyage was about to radically change. By February 5 the ship was placed under quarantine for 14 days, and Arma had the dubious honor to deliver the first of many messages which began with the refrain for which he would become famous: “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking.” The entire confinement, with Arma famously being the last to disembark, would last for 27 days.
You may look back now and think that additional protocols should have been in place, that measures should have been taken to avoid the spread aboard Diamond Princess. But it is only the foggy lens of hindsight at work: bring yourself back to those halcyon days, when no one knewanything. When even the most worldly of us were only faintly aware that there was something going on in a city in China that many of us had probably never heard of before. Imagine being the first people to be at risk for something unknown, and unseen. Remember how strange it felt, the first time you wore a mask or kept your distance from someone. Remember the fear, the anxiety of not knowing if you had it, what it was, and whether or not it would kill you.
And then imagine being the one who had to keep it all from falling apart. There are not many good words to describe that position. Unenviable springs to mind.
The isolation that passengers on the ship were required to observe bears little resemblance to the stay at home orders that most of us received. Even with mounting evidence of the harmful effects of prolonged quarantine on our mental health, it is hard for the vast majority of us to understand what those days would have been like. As Arma explained, “It’s one thing when you must remain in your house with your family, your things, your pets. It’s something else when you have to tell people that are not in their homes to remain confined and isolated in a small space. Some cabins were big but the majority of the cabins are small; some have windows and balconies, but many don’t. There were kids. I have a son. And we have a big house, with a garden and patio, and even then it was difficult to keep him at home.” While crew members madedaily rounds delivering games, activities, coloring books, and toys, anyone with children can imagine how slowly the time would have passed and the toll it would have taken.
Only history will prove whether the decisions made aboard Diamond Princess over those 27 days were the best course of action, and we still don’t yet know all (or even part) of the secrets the strange genomic sequence that has upended our world has to tell. But on a personal and interpersonal level, Arma’s approach held thousands of people together when they could have come apart at the seams. Passengers made drawings, sent notes, and broadcast his daily messages over their social media feeds around the world. His announcements were a combination of solemn tallies of new infections and encouraging notes. He read. He made fun of his own accent. He wished people buon appetito because as even Virginia Woolf would have insisted reiterating, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” He allowed the fourth wall to tumble and in so doing, he changed the way thousands of people looked at him, and at each other.
There is a word, from the Nguni Bantu language: Ubuntu. It is difficult to translate, as all words are. It means, roughly, I am because we are. It suggests a universal bond of sharing, and through that sharing, a connection between that thing which makes us all human. It is a powerful word. It is an apt word, in this case.
Gladiators. When we think of cruise ships we think mostly of the cruise and rarely of the ship. Indeed it is easy to forget that these are massive, defiant vessels with a level of technology that the British Empire at its apex would never have dared to imagine. And there is perhaps something to the notion that these great behemoths, frivolous though they may sometimes seem to those of us on land, are on the same quest. They are no longer charting unknown waters but they are still the repositories of dreams.
It is also easy to forget that among the thousands of people who inhabit those floating cities there are hundreds that are tasked with keeping it afloat: cleaners, waiters, and crew people living amongst the revellers and reposers, all with their own language and labyrinths, living in parallel to their charges. Words took on particular importance for the workforce aboard Diamond Princess. As supermarket workers and delivery drivers around the world would learn, being classed as an essential worker meant putting your safety at risk to perform jobs that normally go unnoticed and always go unappreciated. It was unavoidable, for as Arma notes, “the guests, which were on average 70 years old, were clearly the most vulnerable while the crew were a younger and ultimately healthier population.”
The over 1,000 crew members performed their jobs in extreme conditions, with much less information to go on than the world would later have. With both fear and fatigue growing, the men and women who should have been entertaining guests were instead tasked with keeping them alive. But they were not alone. They were comforted and encouraged by the man who called them gladiators, who made them feel essential because they were, in his eyes. As one crew member recalled, “This captain was beautiful,” he says. “We could have stopped working, but we did not, because of the encouragement and those gladiator speeches.” At a time when they could have, and maybe even should have succumbed to their fears, they rallied instead.
As Arma writes, the crew became so attached to his announcements that when they were moved off the ship and into their quarantine facility, they would send him messages asking for nightly messages. “It’s not in the book,” Arma says, “but a crew member, a senior officer on board who was in the room down the hall, sent me a voice message in tears because for the first night after so many days, she did not hear ‘good night, my Gladiators’ and she could not believe it. Amazing.” He shakes his head at the memory, but he shouldn’t have been surprised. Words can do that, you know.
In many ways, La lezione più importante is a prologue. That month aboard Diamond Princess, which should have been a harrowing yet self-contained episode, was only the beginning of a surreal year. “I was still in Japan doing my quarantine when the news came out that Italy was in lockdown. So immediately you start to think, here we go, now it’s happening again: after a month on board, then two weeks in Japan, I’m going home to more of the same. I was still happy, because I was going home to my family and my house with my things, my dogs. But it was different: I was active when I was on board. I was part of the process.
“During the emergency I was involved in everything. At home I was passive, doing nothing and waiting for the news on the TV regarding updates or the next restrictions, just like everyone else.” It’s this passivity, the lack of control and awareness of uncertainty, that leads most of us down that dark path with which we’ve probably become all too familiar in the past year. It leads us to panic, to lash out at confusing or unclear information, and to resort to confirmation bias in an attempt to brace ourselves for the worst case scenario. And it’s contagious. Gennaro Arma knew this, and he knew that it was dangerous. “In a crisis, people get scared. Because I was so involved, as I’ve said many times, I didn’t have time to be scared because I didn’t have the time to be scared. You get scared when you’re sitting and waiting for someone to make a decision on your behalf. So you need to avoid that fear with your decisions, with the way you communicate, with your actions.”
It may be years before we know what went through the minds of world leaders during this time, if ever. But Gennaro Arma spent a long month making similar decisions and carrying the weight of their consequences. It is this aspect that makes his story so compelling, and offers a window into how this responsibility both motivates and changes us. “It’s not that I knew how [government leaders] felt, but I could understand what they were going through. Making decisions for thousands of people like I had to onboard, or the millions of people like a government or Ministers, it’s not an easy thing: the challenge to find masks and hospitals and beds in the hospitals were exactly the same challenges we had to face on Diamond Princess. And yes, we were there before many other countries.”
“Listen, what they're doing is not easy. They're making decisions for millions of us. Perhaps I would not have said that or thought that way before. And I’m not just saying it, I really feel it.”
There have been plenty of examples of good leadership over the past year, and just as many cautionary tales of poor management. What sets them apart are all of the things that people like Gennaro Arma displayed, even if they were unaware of following any particular playbook: honesty, empathy, and resolve. He gave people as much information as he could, took their fears and insecurity seriously, and fought like hell to make sure that he could deliver on any promises he made. This was particularly true in the final moments of the confinement aboard Diamond Princess. “If the emergency would have continued indefinitely, the challenge would have been huge and more difficult to deal with. It’s always up to the people in charge, those responsible to kind of manage the crowd let’s say. So as I discussed in the book, I was worried when the original finish line [of the quarantine] was moved [by Japanese authorities]. I was concerned but I immediately started to work on communication and helping people to keep going.
“And there was a risk, trust me, there was the risk that the finish line would have been postponed longer. Luckily, we didn’t have to face that but again, I believe it very much depends on how you and the team that is making the decisions help people work through these challenges. I think this is the biggest mistake: when the finish line is posted you need to push from the other side to make sure it stays in place. You cannot ask people to keep running.”
Indeed, shifting goal posts have added frustration and fatigue to already confusing circumstances, and Arma watched it happen in Italy along with the rest of us. “You know, they took us to the finish line in May and then we started to celebrate like we’d won the race: we had parties and we started to go out. And then, from one day to the next, we were told that the race was starting again, and no one had any idea where the finish line even was.” He too felt the difference between the early days of rainbows and later months when the colors coalesced around red, orange and yellow, knowing perhaps better than most that hope is a precious commodity that must not be squandered. But he knows how grey the world can be, how much harder it is to know what the right thing to do is, particularly when there is so little information to rely upon.
More than any amount of recognition or fanfare, this is what changed him. “I probably appreciate more now what it really means to be in a crisis. It’s funny, I received so many calls from friends of mine and family members asking me, ‘What do you think of [the government’s decisions]?’ But it’s easy to criticize. So I was the one telling my friends and family, ‘Listen, what they’re doing is not easy. They’re making decisions for millions of us.’ Perhaps I would not have said that or thought that way before. And I’m not just saying it, I really feel it.”
Granted, his newfound understanding of the complexities of crisis decision making doesn’t mean that Gennaro Arma can’t see the failures, both at home and abroad. “I was surprised how after Diamond Princess, and after Italy which was the first nation to be confronted by the pandemic, so many countries around the world were not prepared. I wrote about the process of preparing for the worst case scenario and planning for every possibility: you know that it could still turn out differently but at least you’re halfway there. Yet all of these countries, large countries, were still so unprepared even months after it started.”
He reserves his strongest disdain for the breakdown in coordination and cooperation in so many countries and communities. “[On the ship], the cooperation amongst all the parties involved was amazing. From the company to the Japanese authorities, the people onboard (passengers and crew), the embassies in Tokyo looking after their citizens. And this is what gets me upset. We showed the entire world that remaining united, working together, and being responsible is what gets you out of a situation like the one we faced on Diamond Princess. So I don’t get it. I get very frustrated when I see what is happening in Italy, or what happened in the US a few weeks ago. It’s crazy. In a crisis we should band together and fight the enemy. Instead we’re disconnected and selfish.”
As we speak, Gennaro Arma is making his way from Malta to Sicily and finally Cyprus at the helm of Enchanted Princess, the newest ship in the fleet. It is the first time he is back at sea after a ten month pause, the longest time he’s spent at home since he was a teenager. Though the circumstances were far from ideal, it was a chance to spend more time with his wife and son than he’s ever been able to do in one stretch (“even the dogs and the cat got used to seeing me around,” he laughs, “they finally realize I’m part of the family”). Though it was precious, it was always going to be limited. “We all knew that sooner or later I was going back, so it’s not like that was a surprise. And while it was recharging to be home for so long, it has been recharging to come back to the ship. It probably doesn’t make sense but as I wrote in the book, we all have these two lives.” Though the ship has set sail it is empty, save for a skeleton crew. As of February, cruises on Princess ships are on hold until mid-May 2021 but he is hopeful and confident that the enhanced health protocols that the Carnival Corporation have been developing in conjunction with the U.S. CDC will keep people safe. Yet as any sailor knows, you’ve always got to be ready to trim your sails and change course.
Lest the polished facade distract you, Gennaro Arma is a sailor through and through, and his every move reveals it. Even his writing often recalls a classic Captain’s Log, filled with the kind of daily recollections that navigators might make during long days at sea. But it is also intimate: a reflection of those earliest days swabbing decks or scrubbing pans in the mess hall, of the gaze of teachers and grandparents that remains with us like a specter. A timeline of the quarantine is interspersed with chapters about his early days at sea, both of the ambition that drove him up the ladder and his frustration at not climbing fast enough. The man that he became is sketched through small moments that culminate in that bigger one, where he was tasked with holding thousands of lives in his hands. His candor makes it all the more interesting, because it makes him all the more human.
But we are a funny lot, and the simple truth of being human is often unsatisfying to the stories we want to tell and be told. We are all desperate to define and to label as if it will somehow make the world spin more reliably on its axis, more like the way it used to be. Hero is one of these labels. Another word that tends to get overused, another word that often brings mythical beings or Tom Hanks to mind. Gennaro Arma has been called a ‘hero’, or referred to as the ‘brave captain’ in media around the world but has consistently shrugged off the moniker, not out of vanity but out of inaccuracy. “When everyone was calling me a hero, at some point I had to say, ‘eroe della normalità’ (everyday hero). If hero is to be the term, let’s give some sense to it. If you want to call me a hero, call me ‘eroe della normalità’ because I did what I was supposed to do. With humanity, okay, but it was my job. Even when I decided to work on the book, I opened up about my private life and experiences to show people that there is no such thing as a hero behind a human being who, through sacrifice and challenges, can still become what he dreamt of as a child. And do his job the best he can. If that isn’t normal, then it should be.”
Indeed, why isn’t it normal? Maybe it’s the ‘just’, the qualifier we put in front of someone’s actions in the course of duty. Perhaps we don’t think enough about what it really means to do our jobs; we take neither pride nor joy in our livelihoods and as a result, our jobs are just things we do. Then we see a man like Gennaro Arma, who assumes tremendous responsibility and does it with grace, and we need to elevate him. But it isn’t for him, it’s for us. The problem with words like hero is that they explain little and get us no closer to understanding how important qualities like empathy or resilience matter to every one of us. It doesn’t help us see any further into ourselves to realize that most of us are capable of extraordinary things. Instead, we make good people into figures that don’t exist in the world. Heroes lead to hero worship, and once we’ve held them up the only way is down.
“If you want to call me a hero, call me ‘eroe della normalità’ because I did what I was supposed to do. If that isn’t normal, then it should be.”
Arma’s face appeared on screens around the world but in Italy his actions were particularly noteworthy, and not just as a native son done good, a bella figura for the whole country to applaud. He was lionized just as much for the contrast in which he stood with the much maligned captain of the Costa Concordia, Francesco Schettino, who was found responsible for the 2012 crash which killed thirty two people off of the Tuscan coast. It’s a tempting narrative, and it probably got a lot of traffic for a lot of news outlets. But Gennaro Arma doesn’t need that kind of press, and he is unwilling to be the poster child for Italian naval integrity at the expense of someone else.
“What happened on Diamond Princess is something that no one was prepared for: there were no manuals or training, no procedures, no tools for a global pandemic of a completely unknown virus. And though our ship was under quarantine and we were isolated from the rest of the world, we were afloat. We had all the services running. There, the ship ran aground. It’s a completely different situation and requires a completely different approach. So when they say ‘you are the Anti -Schettino,’ it makes no sense to me. And I didn’t do this to be the ‘anti-’ anything. People even asked if I decided to leave the ship last so that I could demonstrate this. I did not demonstrate anything to anyone. I left the ship as the last because this is what we’re supposed to do. I’m just Gennaro Arma, a Captain who does his job with passion, determination, and professionalism. That’s it.”
“Do you know, I’ve been told that there is actually a Wikipedia page?” Arma has received the Emanuela Loi award for courage, the Assarmatori prize from the Italian maritime association, and the San Michele d’Oro award from the town of Castiglion Fiorentino. He has also been bestowed the title of Magister of Civiltà Amalfitana, a symbolic title that technically means he could be addressed as Duke. And then there is the small matter of being named Commendatore of the Italian Republic by Italian President Sergio Mattarella, the equivalent of a Knighthood. Yet it is his entry in the great Internet zeitgeist that strikes him. He laughs again, less amused than incredulous. “Unbelievable.”
For the first half of 2020, Gennaro Arma’s face was a common sight in newspapers and on talk shows, so poised that he seemed almost tailor made for the screen. But the more time we spend talking, the more he feels like the kind of person you’d have been friends with from childhood, the guy you might have gone to high school with and always wanted to have your back. This is the problem with elevating people to hero status: we don’t give them room to breathe, to be mortal, to be fragile. And when we do that, we miss how interesting they can be.
But Arma is interesting, perhaps even more than he realizes. Ever intrepid, he made the decision not to avail himself of a ghostwriter for his book, even though he had never written before. The work is better for it: where it might have been polished and majestic in practised hands, it is warm and personal in his own. “I was scared of the book because I knew it would have my name and my picture, it would be my book. So I said, this has to represent me so that people who know me, when they read it, or my son one day when he’s married and shows it to his child, my grandchild, they’ll know who Gennaro Arma was. That’s why I always kept some distance from the idea of a ‘hero’; it doesn’t represent me. I’m a Captain, and we make crucial decisions on a daily basis and deal with so many challenges that are never really known. That’s what I wanted the book to represent.”
When Gennaro Arma received those first indications that he would have to navigate Diamond Princess through an entirely unknown swell, he didn’t sign up to be a hero, and it’s not his responsibility to carry the weight of our unrealistic expectations. He signed up to do his job, and he did it well. It’s up to us to make that enough, to find the right words for it and remember it not as heroism but as dignity. After all, it is this that makes us all better humans; it is this that allows us to understand that concept of Ubuntu, “I am because you are.” Because when the dust settles and we resume those daily acts that once felt so insignificant but now mean so much, we won’t need heroes. We’ll need good people who have our backs and won’t mind being the last ones out. We’ll need people who do their jobs, and do them well. When the dust settles and we start the hard work of picking up the pieces, we’ll need each other.
At one point Arma reveals that if all goes well, both he and Diamond Princess will be returning to Japan in July 2021, when the ship is scheduled to return to port. “It makes sense for all of us: for me, for the company, and for the ship, who I know misses me too.” We joke that it will be his Call me Ishmael moment, recalling the mystical character, the original essential worker, who for so long went unrecognized as the driving force of the epic Moby Dick. Gennaro Arma laughs again, this time with the slightest hint of melancholy for the ship who misses him, who is because he is. “Indeed.”
Tom Hanks is going to nail that scene in the film.
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