OPINION: As more Diamond Princess Pinoy crew test positive for COVID-19, unrest grows

Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Feb 24 2020 09:57 PM

Some of the Filipino crew aboard the Diamond Princess, a cruise vessel where COVID-19 cases have ballooned to more than 600 cases, are asking the Philippine government to bring all workers home, including those who tested positive for the virus after a February 20 mass testing.

It’s not a unanimous call. Others want to be sent to Japan medical facilities for proper care.

The Department of Health on Monday, February 24, said the number of Filipino crew diagnosed as carriers of the COVID-19 virus is now 59, up from 42 last week. Japan ordered the vessel closed at the end of the initial quarantine period on February 19.

“Before they disembark, they will be assessed by medical teams if they are showing symptoms,” Health Assistant Secretary for Public Health Services Maria Rosario Vergeire. “No one with symptoms will join the repatriation.”

The health department last week said it was repatriating Filipinos on February 23, but moved the schedule to Tuesday because of the need for more tests.

‘Peace of mind’

I spoke with four workers, including two who tested positive in the Feb. 20 test, via chat apps over the weekend. I also spoke with kin anxiously awaiting their return.

One of those who initially tested positive in the Feb. 20 test, said he counted more than 20 others taking second swabs for verification the following afternoon. Majority came from the galley and dining units, he said.

The workers have been hailed by grateful passengers and fellow seafarers as “heroes”. But the ones I talked, and their kin, question that word, noting that they were unnecessarily exposed to the potential of infection.

At least one crew has been taken off the vessel to an unknown isolation ward in Japan, said another crew with personal knowledge of the case. But most of those who tested positive are well and show no symptoms, two other sources said.

They have been told to keep themselves in isolation in their cabins, though at least two cases still stayed overnight on February 21 with mates who had tested negative.

The crew who tested positive appealed for the Philippine government to also bring back those among the confirmed cases who still remain healthy. He cited reports of offloaded crew and passengers complaining of ground isolation facilities as host country, Japan, struggles with hundreds of cases.

“They can send us straight to hospitals even if we don’t show symptoms,” the crew said. “Better at home than in a strange place where there have been reports of problems from those taken off the ship.”

Overwhelmed hosts

Not everyone agrees. But most crew, spooked by international reports on the status of a British couple responsible for prodding governments to take off their nationals off the cruise ship, want the Philippine government to ensure that, if offloaded, they are brought to good facilities.

A report by The Guardian said David and Sally Abel, a couple responsible for prodding governments to take off their nationals off the cruise ship have problems with their accommodations in Japan.

It quoted their son, Steve saying David is seriously ill with pneumonia and Sally, with a milder case, “in a hospital room in Japan that had no shower or bathing facilities and had only been provided with basic paper towels.

“They don’t know what’s happening, they haven’t had any treatments. They have been told that if they test negative twice they can go – but that doesn’t treat pneumonia,” Abel’s son said in The Guardian report.

“Japan is overwhelmed by the cases, we know, so it is the Philippine government’s responsibility to look into conditions of those earlier diagnosed positive,” said Migrante International chairperson Joanna Concepcion. The DOH has said one of the Filipinos sent to Japanese hospitals has been released.

‘Ensure our welfare’

Magsaysay Maritime Corp said more than 100 Filipino crew have opted to stay onboard since they have not had contact with passengers.

The agency has also assured seafarers' families that they will be protected, amid their quarantine and that it is closely coordinated with various government agencies here and abroad.

Concepcion, who was ushered out of a February 23 dialogue between manning agency Magsaysay Maritime Corp and families of crew, said her direct conversations with various staff onboard Diamond Princess showed anger about being treated shabbily by their employers.

But she also said that other crew and families, fearing for the future of their jobs, would rather remain silent.

“They have been forced to continue with standard-operating procedures that expose them to potential infection,” Concepcion said. “Even as the number of infections was rising, the innovations aimed at protecting passengers did not cover them.”

Her remarks echo what I got from crew, although she spoke with other seafarers. Other seafarers also took to Facebook to air gripes.

Jason Abalos, a galley staff said on February 20: “We know that quarantine period has been done. But why we are still working five days? We are counting days and it seems like it’s getting longer & longer. We are no longer functional well, both (in) body and mind. And we are stressed and frightened. Thinking, what will happen next as the virus has been spreading so fast inside this ship.”

“I hope you understand us,” he said. “Money is nothing if you die and leave your family without a great memory.”

‘Business as usual’

The four crew who spoke with me said a minor “revolt” has broken out over management’s insistence that frontline workers continue working until diagnosed with the virus.

All said “business as usual” among hundreds of workers only increases the odds of infection spreading.

Cruise ship management threatened crew who refuses to continue working in a February 23 meeting. They warned that their employer could rescind the promised “gratitude pay” worth two-months of their salaries. In Manila, kin who had spoken out were reprimanded by Magsaysay executives.

Around more than a dozen crew have complained about unnecessary reporting, some on their Facebook posts. One of them has tested positive for COVID-19.

Filipinos comprise roughly half of the workforce on the Diamond Princess, a cruise vessel forced to become a giant quarantine facility off the port of Yokohama, Japan during the last three weeks.

The ship, owned Carnival Corporation, the world’s second-largest cruise line in terms of net revenue, was carrying more than 3,700 passengers and crew when the first COVID-19 case, reported on February 4, prompted the quarantine.

Returning crew can bring only one carry-on bag by their manning agency, according to Magsaysay Maritime Corp.

A letter signed by the company president, Arnold Javier, which a crew shared, said there are “no personnel at the Yokohama port and Haneda airport ground handling crew available to load planes”.

Most crew have nine-month contracts though some have been worked for decades on Carnival Corporation’s cruise vessel fleet.

They continued their shifts as cases rose in alarming numbers on board the Diamond Princess, sparking questions about the wisdom of forcing a ship quarantine for 3,700 passengers and workers.

“Even when they were sending packed food to passengers to minimize infection, they were still obliging crew to cook our own food, eat meals together and attend daily meetings,” said the source.

“We were given N95 masks and gloves, but unnecessary proximity to each other just worsened the situation,” he said.

Compensation

Passengers and Carvinal have hailed crew as heroes, and Migrante said Filipinos had served beyond the call of duty in providing service to stricken passengers.

“It is time for you to demand your due,” said the group. “You are owed clear, timely information on comprehensive protection plans and the government and your employers should commence the swiftest, non-discriminatory medical measures.”

Workers are now discreetly discussing with kin the possibility of seeking indemnity from employers. Although they will be paid for time spent on board, some with contracts still good for several months will be taking income hits.

Magsaysay has said those taken off the vessel would still receive their wages. Crew, however, also want a guarantee that whatever fallout from the virus would not affect future stints.

“Gratitude pay” is a misnomer. “There should be accountability for exposing crew to unhealthy protocol even when ‘reforms’ were underway for paying passengers,” said the wife of one crew who hails from the central Philippines.

She said that before February 20, workers got tested only when they showed symptoms.

“Even when a worker fell ill, many others in close contact because of work still did not get tested,” she said in a phone interview.

“Passengers kept to their rooms, but they continued to mass around each other. By then they knew that people who display no symptoms could pass on the virus.”

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.