South Africa

COVID-19

SA crew members still trapped in limbo on ‘clean’ cruise ships

SA crew members still trapped in limbo on ‘clean’ cruise ships

Like the legendary Flying Dutchman, cruise liners Koningsdam, Grand Princess and many others have been off the western coast of America for over two months, doomed to sail the oceans forever – or so it seems to their crews, desperate to get home.

Stigmatised as hot breeding grounds for the coronavirus, no one wants to let the cruise ships berth and allow the passengers to disembark. 

About 160 South Africans are among the crew on board the Koningsdam, which was, finally, to enter the Mexican port of Puerto Vallarta on Wednesday 20 May. Thirty-seven of the South Africans had transhipped from the Grand Princess at the weekend, ready to make a final push to dock and fly home. They have been at sea since February. 

US authorities had refused to allow them to make land, apparently fearful that they were incubators of the coronavirus. Cruise ships became stigmatised after a huge outbreak on board the Grand Princess’s sister ship, the Diamond Princess, off Japan early in February when more than 700 people on board were infected. For weeks, that ship was the site of the largest outbreak outside China, where the coronavirus originated.

The South Africans on the Koningsdam are among an estimated 54,200 crew members of all nationalities on board 85 cruise ships in US waters, the US Coast Guard told the BBC this week. And it said that, according to the Miami Herald, there are more than 100,000 crew members – some of them also South African –  stuck on cruise ships around the world.

According to some of their crew, the Grand Princess and Koningsdam have for some time been certified “green” (clean) by no less than the US Centres for Disease Control – which originally precipitated the crisis on 13 March by issuing a no-sail order for all cruise ships.  

Despite this, the stigma of the cruise ships seems to have been so great that California and other US states have refused to allow the ships to dock since early March. And so eventually last week they, and other ships off the California coast, set sail for Mexico. At first they encountered the same problem there. Mexico would not let them dock. Now, however, there is hope on the horizon.

The Grand Princess and the Holland America Koningsdam both belong to the Carnival Group, the world’s largest cruise company. But that has not helped them much. 

The South African crew members on both ships seem to have got a worse deal than most. Going back a bit in the saga, the Grand Princess was allowed to disembark its passengers, several of whom were infected with the coronavirus in California during the first week of March. But the crew, other than 19 who were infected, were not allowed off. Since then, crew members of almost every other nationality have been allowed off the ship to catch flights home.

The 37 South Africans were not allowed to disembark. Part of the problem seems to be that they would have had to cross the US to Washington to catch the only South African repatriation flights leaving from there. 

A South African crew member, who spoke to Daily Maverick on condition of anonymity, said the South Africans still don’t understand why they have not been allowed to disembark. They said there seemed to be considerable confusion over the US regulations relating to the pandemic. 

Our ship is 100% clean, including all crew,” said “Brett”, the South African. He added that in the run-up to the disembarkation of the guests, the crew had all been very busy “sanitising and cleaning everything from head to toe”. It took about five days to get all the guests off. Sick guests and crew were taken directly to hospitals. 

“All crew from US/Canada and UK were also taken off during those first few days in March and flown home immediately,” said Brett. Filipino and Chinese crew members were also allowed to fly home. 

“Indian and Indonesian crew tried as well, but instead got stuck in an airport bus for six hours,” he said. “Eventually their government decided they didn’t want them. They then returned to the Grand Princess to await further instructions.”

The remaining crew headed into full quarantine as mandated by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

“At the beginning of these 14 days, we received crew from other ships which were ‘green’ – healthy – who had volunteered to help feed us and help with garbage and other things while we were in quarantine,” added Brett.

“Fourteen days straight in our cabins, all meals delivered to our cabins (three a day, of our choice from an online menu) and temperature checks twice a day by a doctor at our door.

“Princess [the cruise ship company] gave us free wifi, which was incredible because we were able to call home and stay in touch during this time.  

“We also got the crew back from hospitals who had been treated and had recovered. They then joined the ‘green’ crew,” said Brett. 

“After quarantine, things quickly got back to normal and the entire ship was sanitised again from head to toe. Again and again, wiping down areas, cleaning crew cabins, helping with linen (as most of the housekeeping crew had left already) and there was a full ship of cabins to be cleansed. 

“We were all asking the question, why can’t we get tested, why can’t everyone get tested? And answers [from the ship’s management] were that there were not enough tests available and that tests were expensive. They gave us vitamins and we continued to do temperature checks when having dinner each night.”

Brett continued: “We have been finding flights, fighting for charters, arranging all of this among ourselves, only to hand it over to the company and for them to take too long to respond and so we miss cut-off times. 

“For example, the Washington DC charter flight to Joburg. We gave them this info as soon as it was available, to get the ball rolling, only for them to focus on getting the Brazilians home first. The Brazilians and Italians flew from LA. 

“After they left, we questioned why we hadn’t gotten our flight, only to be told that we are not allowed to fly within the US – it has to be a straight flight out. We are on the west coast and all the flights are leaving from the east coast. 

“We then missed the cut-off to pay for any of those flights leaving Washington. 

“Then they decided to get the Chileans off. We were sure this would mean we’d be next, as there were literally only South Africans and Peruvians left onboard,” said Brett.  

“But upon questioning the human resources officers, we were told that nobody was confirmed to be flying home, but instead would be transshipped to another ship to sail home.”

Brett said he felt the South African government was not doing much to help them. “When this first started, DIRCO [the Department of International Relations and Cooperation] told us that we are the last priority because we are safe and have food.” 

“While I understand this, most of us have finished our contracts and have been stuck on board since the beginning of February, earning no money. This is a long time to be away from our families. How are we not a priority to get home?”

When the South African crew does contact DIRCO, “they send us a copy-paste response telling us to call them. When we try to call, nobody answers. When we email, nobody answers.” 

Towards the end of last week, John Smith, captain of the Grand Princess, having despaired of being allowed to dock in the US, set sail southwards for the port of Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. Shortly after arriving there, he sent the crew a message on the intercom to say that the authorities there had also refused permission for the crew to disembark for flights home.

The captain said he would sail further south to try to get permission from another port, as Mexican states had different regulations.

Things started looking up at the weekend. All the crews on board the Grand Princess and 16 other ships in the vicinity were moved to the Koningsdam, which had been chosen as the ship to spearhead attempts to dock in Mexico.

On Monday 18 May, when the Koningsdam was riding at anchor outside Mexico’s Puerto Vallarta, its Dutch skipper, Captain Werner Timmers, broadcast a message to the new crew welcoming  them on board.

Timmers said that after extensive negotiations with Mexican authorities, “we now anticipate being able to bring Koningsdam into Puerto Vallarta on Wednesday and we are looking at charter flights to Europe, South America and potentially Africa as well”. He warned, however, that the situation could still change. 

Later that day, Timmers updated them over the intercom. He said he was still waiting for the Mexican authorities to approve his plans to dock in Puerto Vallarta so that crew members could board charter flights to South America as well as eastern and western Europe. 

For the South Africans, however, there was another hitch. Instead of flying directly home, they would be put on a flight to Barbados to join the Koningsdam’s sister ship, the Emerald Princess, which would sail them back to South Africa.

Daily Maverick contacted the South African embassies in Washington and Mexico City earlier this week for comment on the plight of the South African crew members and their criticism of Pretoria for not doing enough to help. There has been no reply. DM

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