OPINION: Families, crew question protocols on infection-stricken cruise ship

Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Feb 21 2020 10:18 PM

Most of the 500 Filipino crew onboard Diamond Princess finally underwent swab tests for the COVID-19 Thursday afternoon, Feb 20, a few days before their scheduled repatriation.

But even as crew await the results of their tests, their relatives warn that management’s business-as-usual mode means staff remain exposed to potential infection until they fly home.

This concern was raised by at least four kin of crew members, some with multiple relatives onboard the Diamond Princess.

In a series of phone and face-to-face interviews, they also said the owners of the vessel and the Japanese host government prioritized the health of passengers over that of workers.

Demands on workers for secrecy are also taking a toll, with a reported Friday meeting called over leaks on an alleged order to get rid of some food sent up by volunteer chefs.

Crew were likewise warned about passing concerns to relatives prior to a scheduled February 22 big meeting called by manning agency, Magsaysay Maritime Corp.

The four persons I talked to admitted they were angrier than their relatives, many of whom urged silence for fear of losing their jobs.


Trapped

Filipinos comprise roughly half of the Diamond Princess’ 1,000-strong workforce. Forty-one have been infected with the COVID-19 and brought to isolation wards in Japan.

Most crew have nine-month contracts though some have been employed for decades by Carnival Corporation, the world’s second-largest cruise line in terms of net revenue.

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.

Critics say keeping a big mass of people in a confined space only worsened the odds of virus spread.

The National Geographic has quoted the executive director of the nonprofit International Association for Medical Assitance to Travelers as saying: “It’s the domino effect, and you have nowhere to go.”

Carnival started sending packed food to passengers this week in a bid to stem new cases of infection, after studies in some countries, pointed to possible droplet transmission.

But even as a group of volunteer chefs started preparing hot meals on the dock, Filipinos said crew continued to eat in ship-cooked food in a common area, though they were asked to sit some distance from each other.

“That hurt,” said one family member of frontline staff. “They knew they still needed to take care of the passengers. But they wondered why critical precautionary measures did not cover them.”


Stressed out

The fear of infection grew as fellow workers were diagnosed with COVID-19.

One assistant chef on a Feb 20 Facebook post said: “We are no longer functional (or) well, both body and mind. And we are stressed & frightened.”

My sources quoted family members on board the vessel as saying the account and post are legitimate, but that the crew was braving intense management displeasure.

Asked how other workers got tests, the wife of a crew member said these were given only when symptoms of infection showed up.

“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 using the Visayan language of central Philippines.

“That made them nervous. 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.”

Concern over containment measures heightened after a Japanese infectious disease expert posted a video, charging that poor standards left workers and health workers vulnerable to the spread of the virus.

Kentaro Iwata, a professor at Kobe University Hospital, later apologized and took down his viral post, but copies continue to circulate online and remain on legacy news sites.

Iwata described the situation as chaotic, with no demarcation between safe and dangerous zones. He also said most of the crew lacked protective gear though relatives confirmed that N-95 masks.

Relatives also questioned earlier announcements about the rate of infection on the ship because of the big number that still had to be tested.

“They said it was six to eight percent when 355 had been diagnosed. But only 1700 had been tested that time,” said a daughter of a veteran crew. “That’s closer to 21 percent.”

 
Repatriation

As governments started to take charge of passengers stranded for weeks, the Philippine government announced Thursday that it would fly home 460 to 480 Filipinos on Sunday.

The number doesn’t include the 41 who tested positive for COVID-19, a virus that has infected more than 76,442 people in China and killed more than 2,000.

The returning crew will have to undergo a new quarantine process at the New Clark Athletes’ Village in Tarlac province, Central Luzon.

Disembarkation from Diamond Princess started on February 20 with the end of the original 14-day quarantine period. But concern over new infections once thousands of folks get to their home countries prompted the new quarantine period.

Japan authorities on February 20 reported 621 coronavirus cases from the Diamond Princess, the biggest number outside of China. The following day, ten more had fallen ill.

The ship’s first COVID-19 case was recorded on February 1, an 80-year old passenger who tested positive a week after getting off in Hong Kong.

Even if the Feb 20 tests show up as negative, Filipinos will need to undergo a second test per local protocol.

A DOH statement on Feb 21 said the department would provide health human resources and transportation to the quarantine site, on-site medical needs of the repatriates, hospitalization expenses through Philhealth, and personal protective equipment (PPE) for the first five days of the quarantine period.

It said Magsaysay Maritime Corporation has offered to handle all transportation expenses of the repatriates from Japan until completion of the quarantine period; PPE for the remaining quarantine period, food, lodging, personal hygiene kits and disinfectants, waste disposal services; and other incidental expenses of the repatriated crew.

“The Department of Transportation will shoulder the transportation of repatriates from Haribon Airport to New Clark City, while the OWWA will provide livelihood packages to the repatriates, and their transportation from Manila to their respective destinations after the quarantine period,” the statement added.


Economic pressures

Initially, economic pressures prodded some crew to relay they wished to stay on board until the end of their contracts. The sources said they had to force their kin into revising the initial emails sent to employers.

“Many of the workers are working to pay off housing loans and education needs of their children, with the veterans having college-level offspring,” one relative pointed out.

 “That’s why even when the cases were rising, many sent word of their desire to stay on, only to be overruled by scared families,” the source said. “A loss of two to three months’ salary is going to create big problems for their families.”

An internal Q and A document that relatives shared with me shows efforts by the company to alleviate the economic crunch.

There could be a loss of some workdays in February for those leaving, however, as the document states that normal pay ends with disembarkation.

The company is providing a “gratitude pay” worth two months’ salary “whether you decide to stay on board or take the time off.”

Crew will also receive their “yearly uplift” and payment for any excess overtime work rendered during the crisis.

Those with expiring contracts are clearly in a better position that those whose contracts still have several months to go.

By now, few still think of staying on. Those worried about loss of income until they are called back to duty have asked about transshipping or continuing work on other vessels. Management says this is not currently an option.


Pending issues

Some workers also asked about hazard pay, citing the contract on termination without notice but with wages.

The company representative, however, said the clause covers only by “high risk and war-like areas” to be determined by the International Bargain Forum/ International Transport Workers Federation.

But this is where some crew eye potential extra compensation.

Most maritime workers are trained for rescue, but coping with a disease outbreak is clearly outside their work scope, notes a lawyer-kin of a senior crew.

Conditions that exposed them unnecessarily to greater infection risk could also be an issue for negotiation, as with the mental health issues that these risks posed for workers, the lawyer said.

But compensation issues at the moment pale beside the desire to see kin out of the danger zone and in the comfort of a Philippine quarantine facility.

The four sources also noted, mostly in a wry manner, that Filipino maritime workers are not exactly known for being assertive on labor rights.

“We’ll see, but my husband will probably just want to get back on board at the soonest possible time,” said the Visayan wife.

“We have three children in college. We may not have the luxury of fighting this out.”

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