Alexandra Nedeltcheva was one of the waiters. Although she avoided the holidays, she served the contractors and the crew in one of the ship’s restaurants. She says she contracted Covid-19 before the Apex even left the port.
“It’s really scary, you don’t know how long it will last,” said Nedeltcheva cough. She says she found it difficult to get anyone to respond to her calls for medication and help. “When I called a doctor and said, ‘can you get me some medicine, my head is going to explode’, they said, ‘some people are sicker than you, stay where you are’. “
She is one of more than 100 crew members of Celebrity Cruises who joined a class action filed against the company on April 14, alleging that she had not taken timely action to protect workers, despite weeks notice that the coronavirus was spreading worldwide.
The ship is no exception. Around the world, a Guardian investigation has found at least 50 ships with Covid-19 outbreaks among the crew.
Perhaps one of the lucky ones was Nedeltcheva, who managed to catch a charter flight to his hometown in Bulgaria.
More than 100,000 other crew members – including hundreds of colleagues aboard the Apex – remain trapped on their ships.
Most have no communication with the outside world, and those who do often are afraid of losing any prospect of future work by complaining. During the Guardian’s investigation, however, a picture began to emerge of what is in reality a nation of floating shipwrecks, stranded on ships from the Galapagos Islands at the port of Dubai.
The first cruise ship to deal with Covid-19 cases, the Diamond Princess, was quarantined in Japan for two weeks beginning February 3. But cruises continued to depart until mid-March. Although most of the passengers have since been repatriated, the epidemics of Covid-19 continue to spread among the crew trapped on the ships. Last week, employees aboard the Queen Victoria, which had just arrived in Southampton, were informed that they should quarantine in their cabins for 14 days, because cases of Covid-19 had been confirmed on board, according to a recording of the captain’s announcement obtained by Business Insider.
In the U.S., the situation was so dire aboard the Oasis of the Seas, whose rescue teams repeatedly evacuated sick workers to hospitals in Florida, that the captain made an announcement by loudspeaker. asking crew members not to film their colleagues on the ship in ambulances, according to an employee’s report given to the Miami Herald.
Another member of the class action against Celebrity Cruises, which belongs to Royal Caribbean, is Julia Melim, a US resident who hosted the Celebrity Infinity shopping and port tourism show on the ship’s television channel. Melim was one of seven crew members authorized to leave the ship in Miami last week. The rest remain on board. She said there was so much illness that the ship’s medical staff cleaned the entire third floor to isolate and treat those who were showing symptoms.
The cruise industry claims that cruise lines have been as blinded by the pandemic as the rest of the world and that those on board ships have not suffered higher infection rates than those on shore.
A Celebrity Cruises spokesperson said, “We have no higher priority than keeping our customers and crew safe, healthy, neat and knowledgeable. We have always worked in close coordination with the government and health authorities and we thank them for their advice. We work with all relevant authorities to ensure the safe return of all of our crew members. “
The Cruise Line Industry Association says it is still collecting information on how many of its ships have been affected, but has so far known 899 confirmed cases of Covid-19 on 15 oceanic cruise ships.
“This represents 0.06% of the confirmed cases in the world,” the association said in a statement. “It is difficult to say how many of these confirmed cases are crew members, as we are also collecting this information as well.”
These figures seem to largely underestimate the problem, given that the Diamond Princess alone had more than 600 cases. Another cruise ship, the Ruby Princess, which is accused of spreading the disease to Australia in March, has now overtaken the Diamond Princess in the scale of its deadly epidemic – 21 people have died and 900 have been infected on board of the ship.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has specifically identified cruise ships as global distributors of coronaviruses.
“Cruise ships are often the scene of epidemics of infectious diseases due to the semi-enclosed environment and contact between travelers from many countries,” said a CDC order of April 4, prohibiting those who leave cruise ships take commercial flights to the United States. “The epidemics of Covid-19 on cruise ships pose a risk of rapid spread of the disease beyond the voyage. “
Most ships have only one doctor and a few nurses for thousands of passengers and crew, workers said. Ships are generally dependent on shore hospitals for urgent care. Due to the pandemic, however, the United States and other ports are refusing to take all but the most serious cases.
“They receive practically no health care,” said Michael Winkleman, the Miami lawyer who filed a class action. “They are locked up in their room and said that they could call a counseling line for help. But when they call, no one comes. “
Cruise lines have little recourse to seek government assistance for urgent health care. While many major cruise lines, including Carnival and Royal Caribbean, are headquartered in the United States, the companies are registered in countries with low tax rates. Carnival is technically a Panamanian company and Royal Caribbean is registered in Liberia, which means they pay almost no US taxes.
Likewise, their vessels are generally flagged in countries such as the Bahamas or Bermuda, allowing them to avoid the stringent safety standards, labor laws and environmental restrictions they might otherwise face in the United States. United.
U.S. Coast Guard officials said in a memo on March 29 that epidemics on board ships are straining rescue and medical resources in the Florida area. The bulletin, obtained for the first time by the Miami Herald, asked ships carrying more than 50 people to prepare to provide their own medical care to people on board for long periods of time.
“Foreign-flagged vessels that sail beyond the United States’ territorial seas, especially those registered in the Bahamas,” should seek help from the countries in which they are flown, he added.
Bahamas officials responded with their own memo, saying that the medical system of the tiny Caribbean island nation would be overwhelmed if it were to care for all of these sick people on cruise ships.
“The cruise industry is facing an unprecedented crisis, and we in the Bahamas, facing the same global crisis, are doing what we can to provide support,” said the statement from the Department of Transportation and local government. . “Our system is not designed to cope with a massive influx of new Covid-19 patients from outside our country.”
On some ships, crew members say they are being treated well, and some have been moved to passenger cabins with balconies and more space for quarantine. Crew on the Celebrity Serenade made a parody video of their time confined to their cabins at sea. Some said they got bonuses from their cruise lines. The Celebrity Edge, which currently floats in the Bahamas, has distributed a video of the captain of the ship delivering meals to the rooms of the quarantined workers.
The situation on other ships is dire. The workers complained that the food seemed to run out and that they were forced to pay for Internet time.
Many crew members had their wages completely suspended. According to letters from the MSC seen by the Guardian, workers on several ships operated by the Geneva-based cruise company MSC are no longer paid after the end of their contract or have been terminated earlier by the company due to the global pandemic.
A spokesperson for MSC Cruises said: “MSC Cruises has made the difficult decision to temporarily suspend its cruise operations. Given that this health crisis has caused all of our ships worldwide to shut down, we have temporarily agreed to release the majority of our crews from their duties and are working to identify and pay for airline tickets for each in order to return home safely for the duration. temporary suspension of vessel operations. We offer all those who stay on board full board and accommodation free of charge, by assigning each guest cabin for individual use. “
A former crew member of another large cruise liner, Krista Thomas, who lives in Vancouver, led a private Facebook group to inform crew members at sea on how to get home.
She says that many crew members are afraid to speak up. They depend on the cruise industry for their livelihoods, and the wages of cruise ships – although low compared to average wages in many developed countries – are often much higher than they can earn at home. .
“They’re probably not just looking after a woman and children; they take care of parents and in-laws, “says Thomas. “They live on contract to fend for themselves … They don’t want to demolish the industry. It took a huge hit because of what happened and they don’t want to see their industry collapse. “
Ross Klein, who has written books criticizing the cruise industry and maintains a website that reports incidents involving cruises, says crew members from developing countries “are as close as possible to bonded labor” . He maintains that cruise lines have a responsibility to take care of them.
“The workers are helpless,” he says. “Employers have a moral and ethical duty to take care of these people they have brought from around the world. There must be ways to find a solution to bring these people home safely. “
Alexandra Nedeltcheva, who is still experiencing Covid-19 symptoms, had to pay for an Airbnb for quarantine near her home in Bulgaria, so she does not expose her family. She is still worried about her friends aboard the Celebrity Apex in Saint-Nazaire, France. There, as of April 14, two workers were still hospitalized with serious Covid-19s and 700 crew members were still working or in isolation, according to a report by a French television station.
Nedeltcheva says she enjoyed seeing the world during her 11 years working with Celebrity Cruises, but the treatment she told the crew during the pandemic opened her eyes.
“I really want something to change,” she says. “They can take better care of their crew. It is time for the cruise industry to improve. “