‘What about us?’: Filipino cruise crews struggle to get home

For 38 days, Gladys Mae watched with relief and a little dread as her fellow crew members were allowed to disembark from their cruise ship anchored in Manila Bay.

“I was happy that they could go home to their families, but what about us – when would be allowed to leave?” said Gladys Mae, who is one of more than 200 crew members aboard one of the 23 vessels currently in the bay.

Their ship sailed from Australia to Manila on April 24 and the crew was made to quarantine on board as they waited for their COVID-19 test results to be released.

Only a negative test result would get them the quarantine certification that would enable them to disembark and return to their homes across the Philippines.

“Some of the ships had a predominantly Filipino crew. We could not deny our citizens their right to come back home,” Captain Armando Balilo, spokesperson of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG).

As worldwide travel restrictions imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19 forced cruise ships to cease operations, shipping lines scrambled to repatriate their thousands of crew.

The Philippines allowed some cruise ships to anchor at the Manila Bay as a way to facilitate the return of its nationals, who make up about a third of the industry’s global seagoing crew.

But the repatriation en masse of other Filipino workers from all over the world caught the government off-guard, and resources crumbled under the weight of testing tens of thousands of returnees.

More than 8,000 Filipino seafarers aboard the cruise ships were tested for COVID-19, but crew members like Gladys Mae were caught in a disarray of encoding errors, misplaced test results and a shortage of test kits resulting in prolonged periods of quarantine.

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