When the first reports of a new coronavirus came out of Wuhan, China, I was exploring a place where very few humans have been: Antarctica. While this news about the virus is worrisome, I was sure I would not be affected. After all, I was about as far from Wuhan as anyone could be. I was working on an expedition cruise ship as a cruise director. We focus on wildlife and geology; it is not a pleasure cruise. And my job was to provide entertainment and fun activities as entertainment.
When the epidemic started, we had a meeting on what was going on in China and developed an emergency plan: if guests had recently been to the area, they were not allowed to come. If they had a fever, they were not allowed to board. As a result, we were able to keep our ship safe and virus-free throughout the Antarctic season.
As we left South Georgia and sailed to the world’s most remote inhabited island, Tristan da Cunha, we learned that entry would be denied.
However, the trip, which started on February 28, did not go as planned. It was supposed to be my last cruise before going on a well-deserved vacation. But as we explored a massive colony of king penguins at St. Andrew’s Bay off the island of South Georgia, we were told that several cruise ships had suffered terrible epidemics and were denied entry to the ports.
As we left South Georgia and sailed to the world’s most remote inhabited island, Tristan da Cunha, we learned that entry would be denied. It was my first glimpse of what was going on outside our ships. (We got permission to take our Zodiacs – small boats – to sail around the island to get a closer look at its wildlife and incredible geological features.)
It was just the start of one of the most stressful periods of my life. When the epidemic first hit cruise ships, the ships were not greeted with compassion. They were excluded, turned back and refused entry. The vessels became giant floating petri dishes, where the virus was able to spread easily over many sensitive surfaces and through the air conditioning system in circulation. The captains were desperately looking for the ports that would take them, while their passengers fell ill.
When the Grand Princess reported suspected coronavirus cases, she was initially denied entry to the port of San Francisco. President Donald Trump seemed to support this non-solution. “I don’t need to double the numbers because of a ship that was not our fault,” he said in March, suggesting that he preferred the passengers and the crew to brown rather than to count their cases of coronavirus in the official US count. So far, two passengers and one crew member have died on the Grand Princess.
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When we left Tristan da Cunha, we learned that South Africa also refused to enter Cape Town. We were in the most remote region of the planet; what were we going to do? We headed for Cape Town anyway.
For several days, we shot in the water near Cape Town. My job was to provide light entertainment for the guests to make sure I kept their minds occupied at all times. I became an artist and comforter. I was out of ideas, but my colleagues supported me. I’ve seen the best and the worst of our customers. Some seemed to blame us for the whole crisis, and some comforted us and rolled up our sleeves to participate.
Our company has worked hard to convince the South African government that we are a virus-free ship. Finally, they let our ship dock to get supplies and refuel. They then authorized our customers to disembark as long as they confirmed the flights outside the country.
It was supposed to be my last port in the contract. I had planned to stay in Africa for a camping adventure through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Sure it was canceled, but at least we were able to bring the guests home and I had a plane ticket in hand. In other words, until the South African government does not allow any crew to return. Later, I discovered that the crew of my ship was not the only one to refuse entry. Tens of thousands of crew members discovered that their stays on their ships were to become indefinite.
The crew of my ship was not the only one to refuse entry. Tens of thousands of crew members discovered that their stays on their ships were to become indefinite.
Our ship refueled one last time, and we left Cape Town, wondering where to find a port for us to return to our families. We spent weeks looking for a way to get home. Finally, I was able to disembark in the Canary Islands with a small group of European, Canadian and American colleagues.
We left the ship with masks on our faces and tears in our eyes; we were afraid of our return voyage and equally afraid of what was to happen to our family of ships left behind. We said at least as many people as possible that we work on cruise ships, the stigma was so strong. From there we traveled to Germany, spent the night at Frankfurt Airport and from Germany to New Jersey. Every hour it felt like our window was closing. As the coronavirus began to cross the United States, Americans abroad became persona non grata.
The relief I felt when I boarded the flight back to the United States was immediate and I could finally feel my body relax. It had been over a month since I had tried to go home for the first time.
As we arrived in Newark, I could see the beautiful New York skyline and Lady Liberty. I have to admit that I cried when I saw her. How many times has it welcomed people in desperate situations? When we got off the plane, I expected to be greeted by the police and CDC officials to check if we were bringing the virus. The only thing that happened was a fever control. That was it. No one informed me that I had to be quarantined for 14 days.
It was then that I realized why America had failed so dramatically in its fight against this virus. To make matters worse, when US officials finally showed wisdom in the face of the threat of the virus, they closed ports without a clear plan. To my surprise and dismay, thousands of Americans are on cruise ships still stranded at sea, some of them off the coast of Florida. It boils my blood.
Indeed, the CDC plan for cruise ships is a contradictory study. According to its website, “As operators of non-US flagged vessels operating in international waters, it is imperative that the cruise ship industry and the cruise lines themselves take responsibility for the care of their crew. nor do they tax limited US resources during a public health emergency. But it seems the CDC left these ships at sea to fend for themselves, without proper medical equipment and training for medical personnel. How can a ship’s doctor and nurse know how to deal with a pandemic that is still confusing the medical community?
And it remains difficult for cruise ships to repatriate their crews. One of the biggest obstacles is the ban on commercial flights. Cruise companies must repatriate their crews via private charters. But crew members also cannot use rental cars, taxis, or carpool services, stay in hotels, or pass through public airport terminals.
The majority of cruise ships are virus free. Some have been stranded at sea for more than 60 days. Meanwhile, American states are beginning to reopen hair salons. Making repatriation so difficult seems inhuman, and this has serious consequences for the mental health of crews.
Obviously, seafarers are not treated with dignity. The crew of a ship is not just a group of housekeepers, cooks and artists. They are also the paramedics, police and firefighters from this community. They were and still are on the front lines of this pandemic, but with very little help. They deserve to go home to their families.
The virus did not come from a cruise ship. He came from the coasts of Asia, Europe and the United States … to ships. Working for a cruise ship should not mean being sent to a floating prison for an indefinite period. America has abandoned its citizens at sea. Now is the time to bring them home.