For the past few weeks, more than 20 vessels collectively weighing about 2 million tonnes are clustered off Manila Bay in the Philippines, awaiting coronavirus clearance for the more than 5,300 Filipino crews waiting to return home from abandoned cruises.
More ships are set to join the flotilla, says the coast guard, which has been shuttling between ships to administer 4,991 virus tests for crew quarantined for the 14 days mandatory for repatriates. So far no suspected cases have been reported.
Crew members told Reuters they were bored, lonely or frustrated being so close to home, but felt fortunate to be confined to their cabins in comfort, knowing that thousands of Philippine returnees are in tougher quarantine conditions elsewhere.
“Each person is staying in a suite room. We feel like the guests now,” joked Michael Torralba Martinez, speaking from one of the cabins that he normally cleans.
“We feel safer here … Standards are strict in ships when it comes to cleanliness and sanitation,” he said in an online chat.
Martinez, 33, a father of two, gave Reuters a virtual tour of his room, one of 1,011 on the 15-deck Sun Princess, where 225 quarantined Philippine staffs were being served by colleagues from countries such as China, India and Indonesia.
At least 15 ships in the Manila flotilla are owned by subsidiaries of cruise giant Carnival Corp, including Costa Cruises, Cunard, P&O Cruises Australia and Princess Cruises, of which three ships were hotbeds for infections. Those firms did not immediately respond to questions from Reuters.
The return is bittersweet for some, a chance to be home again with less risk of prolonged exposure to an outbreak, but soon jobless and facing dim employment prospects in an industry brought to a virtual standstill by outbreaks, travel bans and flight cuts.
“When I learned we’ll be sent back home, I was happy and sad at the same time. Sad because I’ll lose my job, but happy because I can be with my family,” said Jenison Herrera of the housekeeping staff of the Queen Elizabeth.
The ship has been quarantined since Apr 20 and without passengers since Mar 14, a month into Herrera’s nine-month contract, when owners in Australia decided to halt services and sail home the 530 Filipinostaffs.
It is too soon to gauge the impact of the virus on the estimated 500,000 Philippine seafarers, who sent home US$6.5 billion in 2019, a fifth of the country’s remittance income, the central bank says. (Source: CNA)