Fifty Days Adrift; The Pandemic From a Cruise Ship

MONTEVIDEO (AP) – Some suggest riot, others jump into the water and some more light flares. In mid-April, the more than 80 crew members of the Greg Mortimer saw all their passengers leave to be repatriated while they had to remain on board and today they have been adrift for more than 50 days off the coast of Uruguay. Those who are not yet infected with the new coronavirus live in fear of becoming infected and some of the sick have suffered from the virus since March.

Of the 83 crew members, 36 have contracted COVID-19 and 25 are in quarantine. Along with the increase in cases, anxiety also grows, and some even believe that the virus circulates in the ventilation system. Five and a half weeks ago the first case was registered. There was already one dead and they fear more.


The drama of this ship is similar to that experienced in other stranded in different parts of the world due to the pandemic: local authorities on the nearest coasts do not allow the crew to disembark for fear of triggering more contagions in their countries and destiny. the foreigners will depend on the negotiations between their shipping company and the governments.

Just on Friday night, Uruguayan Foreign Minister Ernesto Talvi reported on Twitter that most of the occupants will be evacuated on Monday and will be staying in different hotels for their recovery. He specified that they will disembark through a humanitarian corridor and arrive “with all sanitary guarantees” in the city to recover and return to their homes. The resolution was made at a government meeting and more details would be known in the next few hours.

The practically new Greg Mortimer – owned by Aurora Expeditions and CMI / Sunstone – made his first trip in November 2019 and specialized in month-long expeditions through Antarctica. This year, as part of his usual activities, he dropped anchor in Usuahia, Argentina, where it is believed that passengers and crew began to become infected since March 15, when they embarked. Just four days earlier, the World Health Organization (WHO) had declared a global health emergency. The more than 120 tourists came from Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Europe.

On March 22, Dr. Mauricio Usme detected fever, fatigue and a “rare” cough in a passenger. The symptoms did not take long to spread “because we shipped infected people,” Usme told The Associated Press.

The doctor is currently in quarantine and cannot care for anyone. Two other colleagues take care of the sick companions who are still on the ship.

Carolina Vásquez is also isolated. The 36-year-old Chilean chef had to be quarantined since March 29, when the symptoms she had begun to feel on the 25th became unbearable. She wanted to believe it was the flu, but the dry cough, high fever, and exhaustion belied it. “I could feel the fever rising. I did not reason much and having no window, I felt even more lost, “he told the AP.

During his first day of confinement, no one served him food. After several calls they sent him some cabbage, salt and lemon. While there were passengers on board, he assured, “the food was not bad”, but then came rotten salads and fruits, unbalanced menus and even a spoiled camembert cheese. Now he receives three meals a day that he raises from the corridor so that he does not have contact with anyone.

A few weeks ago, Vásquez was in charge of coordinating the food for more than 200 people and now all her days go by the same way: in the morning she is awakened by a colleague who calls her by phone to see how she is. Then she gets breakfast, takes an anti-hyperthyroid drug — a pre-existing condition — and sleeps a little longer. When he wakes up, he makes tea, takes a shower and opens the windows. Then spray curtains, rugs, sofa, bed, latches, and lamp with bleach and water.

Friends or family send him screenshots of the newspapers he wants to read because he has no access to news, radio, or television. Like the rest of the crew, you can only use chats despite the fact that the ship has a working Internet connection. They are provided with basic toiletries such as soap and toilet paper, but not toothpaste or shaving cream, which they must purchase.

When night falls, Vásquez looks out for sale and from there observes Montevideo “longing for this nightmare to end.”

After detecting the first symptoms on board, and in the desire to dock in Argentina or Uruguay, the captain and the shipping company pressured Dr. Usme to alter the health status statement. Although he claims to have refused, managers of the companies that own the Greg Mortimer sent him emails – to which AP had access – to insist on the issue and even threatened not to hire him again.

On April 4, when they did the first tests, 128 people out of the 210 sailors tested positive between passengers and crew. A day later, 16 Uruguayan doctors embarked to help.

After six days, Usme and Ronnie Lorenzo – a worker in the ship’s hold – disembarked and were interned in a Montevideo sanatorium. Usme had cared for more than 200 people and had a fever for four nights. Since then they have done five tests, all positive. He was hospitalized for five days and returned to the ship, but Lorenzo, 48, died.

According to the doctor, he felt “very vulnerable, with an imminent risk of death, alone, unprotected. You cannot be visited by family or speak to anyone. Ronnie died alone, without family or friends. “

The mental health of the crew – of 21 different nationalities – is delicate. There is “risk of suicide, individual or collective psychosis and that can generate a riot. People are physically tired and mentally exhausted, “he said.

Johan Ortiz, a 22-year-old Honduran crew member, agrees. “There are anxiety attacks, people who don’t eat … They feel too sad. Being isolated and alone for so long is difficult. ” According to crews consulted by the AP, including Ortiz, the largest number of panic attacks occurred during confinement in at least three women in cabins without windows or ventilation.

Several people spent nearly two weeks in confinement until they changed their cabin, several crew members confirmed to the AP.

Marvin Fernando Paz Medina, another 51-year-old Honduran with 24 years of sailing experience, has been locked in his cabin for 36 days. He went from placing food in warehouses, distributing food to cooks and preserving groceries, sanitizing his space several times a day and washing clothes in the shower holding on to his Bible.

You cannot sleep thinking that the virus circulates in the ventilation system. March 31 started with symptoms. His voice seems stuffy, but “it’s not the disease”, from which he evolved well, “it’s the psychosis of being in an infected place. The mind begins to feel things that you don’t have, ”he laments.

“Since Ronnie’s death we have lived with anxiety. Every day we wake up thinking what can happen, who can get sick or aggravated, “he told the AP.

Marvin boarded a month before the passengers, on February 15. When her children ask her when she will return home, she does not know what to answer. When the tourists disembarked, he thought “a week later we were leaving”, but no. “The saddest thing is the silence of the company.”

The company has not given a firm response at the moment and from Uruguay, Foreign Minister Talvi has said that talks are being held with the company so that at least the uninfected crew can disembark. “We let the company know that since this is going to be long, we would welcome them to start evacuating the non-essential crew,” he told a local television station.

If an agreement is reached, everything indicates that the crew would fly to Las Palmas, Canary Islands, where the shipping company has its berth. The Uruguayan government has been willing to put together another humanitarian corridor – as it did when the more than 100 passengers were repatriated in mid-April – to make that happen. Meanwhile, it has emerged that at least ten crew members – whom the AP spoke with, and it is possible that others more – are going to file a lawsuit against the company in the courts of Miami.

Meanwhile, time passes and the crew is considering what to do. Some have proposed jumping into the water and swimming to Montevideo to ask for help. “Every day more crew members become infected. In the last test six new ones came out. The tests they give us will continue to give positive results. While we are on board there is no hope, “Paz told the AP.

Many crew members do not want to speak out for fear of retaliation. Paz, on their behalf, appeals to the solidarity of the Uruguayan government. “We ask the chancellor to help us disembark. On land we will heal where we do not infect anyone and we are isolated. If they send us home in a humanitarian corridor, perfect. We do not want a tragedy to happen, “he said.

Meanwhile, the only certainty that remains is that in the next few days they will be tested again to see if they are infected.