Over a month after most major cruise lines announced they would suspend cruises in order to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, over 100,000 crew workers are still trapped on cruise ships around the world, unable to return home.
According to a new investigative report from the Guardian, at least 50 of the ships with workers still on them have COVID-19 infections onboard. Crew members are quarantined in small cabins, have limited contact with the outside world, and some are no longer being paid. Cruise officials said that port closures, travel bans, and flight restrictions have made it extremely difficult to repatriate these workers to their homes. In the meantime, they have become, as the Guardian puts it, “a nation of floating castaways, marooned on boats from the Galapagos Islands to the port of Dubai.”
“We all have family, we all want to go home,” one worker on the ship the MSC Seaview off the coast of South America told the Guardian, on the condition of anonymity. “We have not received any information about when we’re going home or what they are doing to get crew members home. We are just in the cabin like prisoners.”
The worker said that he was no longer getting paid, and that another crew member who had already left the ship had tested positive for COVID-19.
In a statement, a spokesperson for MSC cruises said that the company is “working to identify and pay for flight tickets for each and every one” of their crew members, and that they are “offering all those who remain on board full board and lodging free of charge, assigning each of them a guest cabin for individual use. We’ve upgraded our menus, and are providing complimentary internet.”
When the novel coronavirus first began its rapid spread earlier this year, cruise ships became enormous, floating petri dishes for the disease, with the virus tearing quickly through the boats’ cramped quarters. A new report this week from GQ detailed people’s experiences last month inside one large cruise ship, the Diamond Princess. Of the ship’s 3,711 passengers and crew, 712 tested positive for COVID-19, and nine people died. Conditions were especially difficult for the ship’s crew, most of whom lived in cramped quarters, and had to continue to work while guests quarantined in their cabins. As GQ’s Doug Block Clark wrote:
“For government officials and corporate leaders, the question of whether it was fair — or even safe — to quarantine the passengers but not the crew was obscured by the priority to keep the ship operational. And so the poor took care of the rich, and the citizens of less powerful nations served those from more powerful nations, and the Diamond Princess remained a miniaturized version of the global order — because what other way could things go?”
The crew of the Diamond Princess were eventually deboarded and went back to their homes. It’s unclear when their colleagues still at sea will be able to do the same.