Read your feeds on social media, and you will find them filled with messages about the world standing together in a bid to fight COVID-19.
Corporates like banks and essential supply companies are hammering email inboxes with soothing words about being “here for you” in times of trouble.
It would appear none of those feelings extend to the sick and elderly if they happen to be on a cruise ship. The world’s governments – including Australia’s – have adopted the cruelest postures towards passengers whose only crime is to take a holiday on the sea and fall victim to a plague which has spread across the world.
It would appear that no-one knows what to do with them. Nor seeks a solution beyond blocking their disembarkation.
Right now, Australia believes some 3,000 passengers are trapped on cruise ships banned from ports around the world by government’s trying to placate increasingly hysterical public opinion. Some 14 ships are being held off the Australian coast.
We understand people are worried. They are right to be concerned. Many of the cases logged in Australia can be traced back to cruise ships.
But that doesn’t mean we should be inhumane.
Yesterday, Western Australia and New South Wales handed the problem to their police commissioners. Quite what happens next is anybody’s guess.
Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan backflipped on a promise to allow Cruise and Maritime Voyages’ Vasco da Gama to dock in Fremantle and disembark 798 Australian and 109 New Zealand passengers, who have spent 13 straight days at sea.
Instead, they were to be disembarked on Rottnest Island for 14 days of quarantine, he said. The New Zealanders and crew could only leave the ship for direct flights home.
Now he has come up with a new plan: only Western Australians can go to Rottnest. The rest must stay on the ship. Even the Australians from other states and territories don’t know where they are going.
“We have seen what has happened in Sydney Harbour – it was a complete and utter disaster and I will not allow that to happen in WA.”
No-one on the ship is sick, and neither passengers nor crew have touched land in 14 days.
The German cruise ship Artania was anchored off Fremantle with 800 passengers on board. Mr McGowan suggested sending in the Royal Australian Navy.
The government has now relented as it became plain the virus has wreaked havoc on the ship.
Today, the position is that 12 have, or are suspected of having, COVID-19 and are being treated in Perth hospitals. Some 46 still on the ship have started to display coronavirus-like symptoms.
Thankfully, and this speaks well to a softening of attitudes, the ship has been allowed to land.
No-one is saying sick passengers should be allowed to disembark untreated or without quarantine. But they should be allowed to disembark under supervised conditions, tested and either quarantined or sent home.
Mr McGowan is right about Sydney. It was indeed a disaster.
The Ruby Princess debacle, in which 2,650 passengers were allowed to disembark even though 13 were being checked for coronavirus, would have been a farce were it not so serious.
The unseemly bickering between Border Protection, a Commonwealth body, and NSW Health is just an insult to the over 130 passengers who have since been tested positive to COVID-19. One, a 77-year-old lady, has died.
At least Premier Gladys Berejiklian had the good grace to admit: “All of us have to take responsibility.”
Ms Berejiklian has now halted all cruise calls, leaving three ships in limbo, until new procedures are in place.
Ms Berejiklian still has to deal with the thousands of crew, aboard ships riding at anchor off Port Kembla.
Meanwhile, in far flung places like South America, scores of Australian doctors aboard Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen are still waiting to fly home.
At least one line has got it right. Almost 300 passengers from the Norwegian Jewel have just arrived for quarantine in the Swissotel Sydney after serving out weeks drifting on an ocean of indecision. The line hired planes to bring them home.
They took responsibility and delivered a solution after government’s turned the Jewel away time and again.
How have we come to this? When did it become OK to treat cruise passengers, some elderly grandmothers and grandads, with such a lack of compassion.
The coming days and weeks will see us tested as never before. And the overarching message we need to carry with us in the dark times ahead is: be kind. It’s what makes us human.
The 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) Convention obliges states to ‘… ensure that assistance [is] provided to any person in distress at sea … regardless of the nationality or status of such a person or the circumstances in which that person is found’ (Chapter 2.1.10) and to ‘… provide for their initial medical or other needs, and deliver them to a place of safety’.
Perhaps one of the saddest stories I have read this week is of ships riding at anchor in New Zealand with only skeleton crew on board being stoned by local residents in speed boats fearing they had passengers on board with coronavirus.
In the words of New Zealand Cruise Association chair Debbie Summers: “This behaviour is breathtakingly wrong on so many levels I do not even know where to begin…. Crying out loud people get a grip and get on with your own self isolating.”
Ms Summers is calling it like it is. It’s time the rest of the cruise industry did the same.
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