This is what it's been like working on a cruise ship during the COVID-19 outbreak
I am currently working aboard a cruise ship in the Caribbean dealing with all of the stress that this virus has caused. Due to the sensitive nature of the situation and still being on board, I can’t disclose my full identity.
I can tell you exactly what it’s like to be in the middle of a global crisis while on a cruise ship.
Working on a cruise ship is an experience like no other. It’s like living in a five star hotel, and if you’re in the right position - like the Entertainment team - you’ve got full access to every amenity.
But it’s also a lot of people in close proximity and it’s the worst place to be in an outbreak. In this case, a global pandemic.
I’m sure you’ve seen news reports of cruise ships having Norovirus on board in the past - it spreads like wildfire. Once can imagine what COVID-19 would do to a cruise ship, even with the highest sanitation standards.
Toward the end of February, the COVID-19 situation began unfolding globally. And then the Diamond Princess came into the spotlight with over 700 cases on board out of over 3700 passengers. The initial thought was “thank goodness our ship is not in Asia - we are far from it”.
A few days later, flu like symptoms swept through the ship. In hindsight, this was the beginning of the virus hitting the ship. Our guests are mainly from the UK and Europe. By then the spread had already began. In fact I believe it had been on board for weeks already, considering China had been dealing with this since December.
By the second week of March, cruise lines were announcing their response to the pandemic - a pause in operations for at least thirty days. It began with Princess Cruises, then trickled through Carnival Corporation, and eventually to Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and just about every major line.
Despite this, my cruise line decided to continue to operate their scheduled cruise. However, this would only be for guests that were currently on board the ship and had booked a back-to-back cruise, rather than newly joining guests.
Close to 700 guests would remain on board, with 1300 flying back to the UK and Europe. Surprisingly, nobody panicked. In fact, there was very little concern on board from guests.
Before the cruise even set sail on March 15th it was announced that fewer and fewer would accept incoming ships and the itinerary would be changing. We would be floating around our current port for the next few days while the company decided where to send us.
At this point a number of other ships started coming in to our port; mostly just as a place to anchor near shore, as other larger ports in the United States were already packed with other ships - including Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and San Juan.
Guests were still calm and didn’t have much concern about the virus. They were more concerned with enjoying their holiday and being removed from the epicentre; Europe.
This is when things began to turn. By Wednesday rumours started spreading that there were cases on board as crew members were being isolated in their cabins. Crew shore leave was not allowed. Four testing kits were brought on board - three for crew, one for a guest.
All came back positive of COVID-19. This was no surprise to me - I knew the virus was already on board. Based on the current rate of spread, we had already been handling this for months.
What surprised a lot of us on board was the lack of sanitizing and precautionary measures used in the event of an outbreak. No protocol was followed despite there being proven cases on board. Chances were that it wasn’t just four people - we had over 150 crew in isolation as well as 40 guests showing flu-like symptoms.
The Medical team were overwhelmed at this point, and additional medical staff were transferred from our sister ships. By Thursday afternoon it was announced by the Captain that all shore leave would stop immediately and nobody was permitted ashore.
Onboard entertainment was stopped on Friday and all activities involving human contact were suspended.
But by this point - in my opinion - all of these efforts were pointless. The virus had been onboard for weeks and the damage was already done.
The cruise was supposed to finish on Sunday, however the authorities at our Caribbean port wouldn’t allow the ship to dock. It would take multiple international governments to push the local government into allowing guests off the ship to fly home.
Late on Monday evening most of the guests flew home on “humanitarian aid” flights, as the government referred to them. Even then, the guests had to leave all of their luggage on board as the airport was running at reduced staffing due to the pandemic.
At this time about 40 guests remain on board in isolation, hopefully returning home soon. The crew are almost all still here as well, as no port will allow the crew off at this point.
However, the remarkable thing is that the mood on board is relatively happy. Everyone is counting their blessings for being in the sun and not having to worry about food or toilet rolls (yes we all heard about that).
Being proactive is what prevented a very negative situation from unfolding on many other ships. Some cruise ships are still looking for a place to drop off their guests from existing longer cruises.
Many of my friends ended their cruises two weeks ago and have just been anchored off the coast of the United States or other islands. Cruise Lines are also doing their best to keep crew on board and paid - a hugely positive move.
Royal Caribbean and Celebrity have tried to give crew guest cabins and in some cases balcony rooms like on Celebrity Edge. What a positive thing to do for people that work so incredibly hard.
The mood on my ship is positive. We are going along with whatever happens - and there is nothing left do but enjoy the Caribbean sun. We don’t know when or how we will return home, but that is the intention.
I am one of the only ones from Toronto, or North America for that matter. For the time being I am happy to stay put. The cruise industry will be back in full force, and in line with the rest of the world, with a whole new set of knowledge that hopefully will lead to a better response in the future.
This article has been submitted to Freshdaily by someone who works for a cruise ship operator and is currently quarantined on the ship. Satraj Kumar is a pseudonym.
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