It became known as the dream cruise that turned into a nightmare.
The ill-fated Diamond Princess cruise ship was a stark image of COVID-19’s rapid spread before the virus found its way into every corner of the globe, leaving a deadly trail in its wake. Next to Wuhan, China, the ship racked up the most number of infections. That was in February.
Two and a half months later, three Filipino crew members who were among the 712 who contracted COVID-19 from the cruise, are still living that nightmare. They remain in isolation, unable to reunite with their families.
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On board the ill-fated ship were 2,611 guests and 1,100 crew members, almost half of whom — 520 to be exact— were Filipinos.
Eight passengers of the Diamond Princess died from Covid-19, the latest, a Canadian man in his 70s was reported last March 23.
As of April 16, the total number of confirmed cases reached 712: 567 passengers and 145 crew.
Of the 145 crew members who got the disease, more than half, 82, were Filipinos. 80 were hospitalized in Japan.
On February 26, the rest of the Filipino crew members, numbering 440 were repatriated back to the Philippines, with two later testing positive.
Eventually by March 1, everyone had disembarked from the ill-fated ship. The passengers of different nationalities: Japanese, British and American have since returned to their respective countries.
Most of the Filipino crew members have also been able to reach their hometowns except for 3 seafarers. The three have recovered from COVID-19 but are still in isolation in Manila, stranded by the Luzon lockdown and serving their quarantine many times over. They are longing to be reunited with their loved ones. With air and sea travel suspended out of Luzon, they have no choice but to stay put in hotel rooms paid for by Princess Cruises. They are appealing for government to find them passage home.
One of them is steward Ian Ceasar Frias. He recalls the difficulties of the quarantine aboard the ship in Yokohama, Japan, as more and more of his companions succumbed to COVID-19. “Ang hirap. Minsan naisip ko na din na gusto kong magkasakit para makapahinga din ako,” he says. “Habang dumadami ang nagkaka-symptoms na bawal magtrabaho, bumibigat ang trabaho kasi konti na lang kayong natitira. Kumokonti kami ng kumokonti.”
Horrors after the cruise
Throughout their stay at the vessel, the captain allowed the crew an hour everyday to have some fresh air at the ship’s topmost deck. The passengers were not allowed to leave their cabins, but the crew continued working, bringing food and medicine to the guests’ rooms and even cleaning them. The crew, meanwhile, shared cramped cabins, two members per room in decks 3 and 4 of the Diamond Princess.
Still the Filipino crew members kept their morale up. “Positive ang workmates ko. Nagtatawanan. Alam mo naman ang spirit ng mga Pinoy. Kahit sobra nang hirap ang pinagdadaanan nakuha pa din natin tumawa,” recalls Frias. “Ang spirit namin at that time sobrang high pa.” On one occasion a dance video of the kitchen staff in the middle of quarantine even became viral.
The Diamond Princess crew members were only able to serve five of their 8-month contract. But they were given extra compensation equivalent to two months of service. Stuck in Manila, Frias says this plus his meager savings are enough to last him only for the next three months.
The repatriated seafarers were quarantined in New Clark City Capas, Tarlac. On March 10, the last day of the mandated 14-day quarantine period, Frias received the dreaded news: he tested positive for COVID-19. Unlike his companions, who headed back home, he was immediately transferred to the Jose B. Lingad Memorial Regional Hospital in San Fernando Hospital. “Tumawag ang DOH sa akin, ‘Positive kayo sa test niyo. Hindi kayo makakauwi sa probinsiya niyo,’” Frias recalls. “Tinanong ko sila, ‘Ma’am sino pa ho ang positive?’ ‘Ikaw lang po so far.’”
It’s not over yet
It was a very low period for the steward. He had to ask why it was only him who contracted the disease. He was confined for 15 days, even if he was asymptomatic. Upon reflection, he realized it was a blessing he didn’t get to go home. “Kung nakauwi ako mahahawahan ko silang lahat. Mas malaking problema po ang haharapin namin. Thankful pa din ako sa Panginoon na ito ang nangyari sa akin.”
But Frias’s ordeal is far from over. Now in Manila, he is cooped up in a hotel room, paid for by Princess Cruises, through his manning agency, Magsaysay Maritime. It’s the isolation that has become so difficult to bear. “Ako lang laging mag-isa nakalugmok sa kuwarto. Ang dami kong naiisip. ‘Bakit mo ito ginagawa sa akin?’ sabi ko sa Panginoon. Parang nawawalan po ako ng pag-asa.”
It is the video calls from his family that sustain him. “Si mama, si papa, ang mga kapatid ko, lagi nila akong kinakausap. Sometimes pinag pe-pray nila ako. ‘You’re always in our prayers.’ Pinagro-rosary lagi. ‘Huwag mawalan ng pag-asa,’ sabi ni mama. Lahat may purpose naman kung anuman ang nangyari sa iyo. Minsan kinakausap ko ang sarili sa tagal kong nakakulong sa isang kuwarto.” Frias says he was barred from leaving his room.
Frias kept his bout with COVID-19 a secret from everyone expect for his family, fearing reprisals and ostracism. His is the same plight as many seafarers who have returned to the country. They are seen as disease carriers and stringent requirements are being imposed for for them to be allowed back to their home provinces.
OWWA or the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration says 13,000 cruise ship workers and seafarers have returned home due to the pandemic. Of these, OWWA administrator Hans Candac says 80-90 percent are still in Manila, because most of them are from the Visayas and Mindanao. “Many of them, roughly 50 percent have hurdled the 14-day quarantine. We have the sad case of manning agencies kicking out of their hotels those who have graduated or finished the 14 day quarantine which is wrong. The manning agencies should hold on to them in their respective hotels while they are still here in Metro Manila awaiting repatriation to their home provinces.”
Cacdac admits it is unclear how the seafarers will get home. Adding to this problem is the expected arrival until mid-May of 10,000 more seafarers from all parts of the world.
The first barrier, says Cacdac is the stringent requirement Visayas and Mindanao LGUs are asking from the seafarers. “They have foisted requirements most outstanding of which would be the requirement of a COVID PCR test, a swab and to be declared negative from that test prior to return. That requirement is not in the IATF resolutions so we really have to grapple with the reality on the ground that LGUs have been requiring these kinds of difficult measures.”
The second barrier is the mode of transport, with the suspension of commercial flights and inter-island sea vessels, the OWWA and manning agencies are looking to get assistance from the Philippine Air Force. One proposal was the use of the two 2Go vessels currently anchored at the Eva Macapagal Port in Manila to take the workers home. However these two ships are now being used as quarantine facilities for the seafarers instead.
“We basically have a standoff. We are yet to decide,” is the disheartening news from Cacdac.
Tinig ng marino
Engineer Nelson Ramirez of the United Filipino Seafarers which publishes the newspaper, ‘Tinig ng Marino’ bewails the government’s failure to address the dire situation of the Pinoy seafarer. “Hindi pa sila nagpapakita ng solusyon. The seafaring industry is doomed for disaster!”
Ramirez says requiring the manning agencies and cruise ship owners to pay for the cost of hotel accommodations and food while seafarers are on quarantine will result in a blacklist on Filipinos and will render the local maritime industry uncompetitive. “Maaring mabubura ang mga marinong Pilipino sa dagat. Hindi yan kakayanin ng manning agency.”
Ramirez also scored the OWWA for being slow in giving the promised PHP 10,000 assistance to the seafarers and for failing to attend to their emergencies due to COVID-19. For every contract, a seafarer contributes $10 to the OWWA, while the shipowner pays an additional $15 to the fund.
While agencies are finger pointing, Ian and other seafarers continue to stew in their rooms.
Today was a reprieve as Frias accompanied a fellow seafarer whom he convinced to donate his plasma to the Philippine General Hospital to be used in convalescent therapy for critically ill COVID-19 patients. Last April 9, Ian got the program started, being the first PGH donor.
The act of donating uplifted Frias’ spirit. “The whole time parang depressed ako, natatakot akong humarap sa ibang tao lalo na pag nalaman nila na positive ako and it turned out so well na puede pala kaming tumulong. Tapos ito ang naging ending--ang ganda! Eto pala siguro ang purpose ni God kaya ako pina-positive, out of 400 crew members sa naka-quarantine sa Tarlac, dalawa lang kami ang positive, ako pa ang pinaka-una. Talagang hindi natin alam ang way ng Panginoon, kung ano ang plano niya,” Ian exclaims.
It is these acts of faith that keep the seafarer going. And thoughts of his two daughters waiting for him back in Bais, Negros Oriental. “Sabi ko sa sarili ko ‘Pag nawalan ka ng pag-asa paano na ang family mo, ang dalawa mong anak? Sino ang bubuhay sa kanila?’ Yun lang ang motivation ko sa buhay. Tapos marami pang pangarap.” He says he often talks to his kids about what they would like to become in the future.
The maritime industry earns $6.8B annually. The country owes the seafarers — who were brought back unexpectedly to home shores by the pandemic — their safe passage home. It is the least we can do for them. And it would give Frias his happy ending.