Not in Cruise Control Ships Caught Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

The outbreak on the Cordelia Cruises ship is only one of the many warning signs regarding the perils of cruising in COVID times
Image used for representative purposes only
Image used for representative purposes only

As of January 3, 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) in the US has identified 94 cruise ships with COVID-infected travellers. This is a staggering count and a worrisome development given the highly transmissive nature of the disease and the dangers of travelling in enclosed spaces without being able to deboard. 

However, the US is not alone in its plight. Passengers aboard five ships off Brazil&rsquos coast have tested positive for COVID-19, leading cruise ship operators in the country to suspend all operations till January 21. In Lisbon, a German New Year&rsquos cruise to Madeira ended when 52 fully vaccinated crew members tested positive on December 29, 2021. The passengers have now been allowed to leave the ship. 

In India, 66 COVID cases were detected on board a Cordelia Cruises ship on its way to Goa from Mumbai on January 3, 2022. On reaching Goa, none from the crew or among the passengers were allowed to deboard when the ship dropped anchor close to Mormugao Port cruise terminal. Additionally, none of the infected passengers have been isolated either on the ship or in an isolation ward in Goa. The ship is now on its way back to Mumbai, amidst vociferous protests from non-infected people.

Cordelia Cruises, however, maintains that it had strictly observed the COVID protocols. Mandatory RT-PCR tests (even if one is double-vaccinated) and double-vaccination proofs are a must before one boards the Cordelia Cruises ships. In an official statement, Jurgen Bailom, the President and CEO of Waterways Leisure Tourism Pvt. Ltd., stated that the crew member who tested positive later had been quickly isolated and quarantined. He further mentioned that swift rapid antigen tests were carried out for the rest of the passengers and the crew thereafter, following which a number of asymptomatic cases were discovered. Expressing disappointment at the lack of support from the authorities, Bailom nevertheless assured central, state and other authorities of their full cooperation. They have also booked flight tickets for the passengers of Goa who are having to sail back to Mumbai after not being allowed to disembark at Goa. And, in abeyance with the DG Shipping&rsquos advisory, the cruise scheduled for January 5, 2022, stands cancelled.

For those sailing on the high seas, 2022 seems to be d&eacutejà vu all over again. Both in 2020 and 2021, over 50 ships travelling around the world&mdashin Japan, China, France, Germany, Brazil, Norway, the Caribbean Islands, UAE, among many others&mdashall witnessed COVID outbreaks in varying degrees. Seafarers may still recall the catastrophic COVID hotspot on a cruise ship that emerged in February 2020 on board the Diamond Princess, which was docked and quarantined off the port of Yokohama. Overall, a total of 712 people (crew members and passengers included) were infected leading to 14 deaths. At that time, the Diamond Princess accounted for more than half of the global COVID-19 cases outside China.

The episodes, both on the Diamond Princess and the Cordelia Cruises ship, adequately highlight the perils of cruise travel during pandemic times, many of which are compounded when the ship is out at sea&mdashinefficacy of standard COVID-19 protocols, absence of adequate medical facilities or personnel on board, higher risk of transmission and infection within the closed confines of a ship and lingering chances of spreading COVID terrestrially after deboarding. The conditions and circumstances are extra harsh for the crew members (including sailors), many of whom stay aboard&mdashand, in case of infection, isolated&mdashfor unimaginably long stretches of time at sea. Not surprisingly, mental health issues and even suicides have been reported among these maritime travellers.

If CDC&rsquos latest instructions and suggestions regarding cruise travel are anything to go by, it becomes apparent that cruise travel is not ready to make a safe return just yet. The highly contagious nature of the Omicron variant is an added complication. The CDC, in its directives, thus sagely advises against travelling on ships and cruises of any kind, even though you may be double-vaccinated or have a booster dose. It also advocates for strict and frequent testing and self-quarantining among travellers if a ship journey is absolutely unavoidable. Whether the CDC&rsquos efforts will bear fruit remains to be seen, although a number of global cruise ship operators still seem to be flouting the norms to do business as usual.

And what about cruise travel in India If the cluster of COVID-19 cases emerged despite Cordelia Cruises&rsquo strictest and most rigorous checks (as they claim), then surely, this is a cause of significant worry. Sadly, there seem to be no easy solutions&mdashwith the exception of a complete ban, which can, in turn, adversely affect the cruise and ship industries. Raj Singh, Chairman of Antara Luxury River Cruises, suggests an alternative river cruises. &ldquoRiver cruises are a very safe alternative to the larger, mass-driven ocean cruises. The US [CDC] advisory has been issued keeping in mind ocean cruising that comes with a large inventory and long sailing schedules. River cruising is an inherently different experience&mdashships are smaller, they operate nearer to land and are tailored to a more private experience,&rdquo Singh mentions. &ldquoThis is the reason why our domestic bookings for January and February are still intact, with strict COVID protocols in place,&rdquo he adds.

However, with the fire and rage surrounding Cordelia Cruises&rsquo Mumbai-Goa trip still refusing to abate, one can only hope that the correct, potentially life-saving lessons are learnt, for the sake of both the passengers and crew members&mdashsooner, rather than later.

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