The Morning Call
Ship crews weigh COVID-19 trauma while mulling return
Princess Cruises crew member Gan Sungaralingum has spent the last two months taking care of his elderly parents, eating home-cooked meals, and doing what he loves most: walking on the beach near his home in Mauritius. But instead of returning to his position as an onboard watch salesman after a few months of rest at home, he’s leaving the industry.
“Maybe I’ll come back as a passenger, but not as a crew,” he said. He’s been a crew member with several cruise lines since 2014.
Sungaralingum is part of a growing number of cruise ship workers who say they will not be returning to their posts when cruises resume. Thousands, like Sungaralingum, suffered several months stranded at sea without pay after the industry shut down in mid-March amid COVID-19 outbreaks on several ships.
The virus hit crew members particularly hard as cruise companies struggled to contain outbreaks even long after passengers departed. At least 1,779 crew members contracted COVID-19 and at least 29 died from the virus, according to a Miami Herald investigation.
Sungaralingum was at sea for more than 51⁄ months; more
2 than two dozen crew members from other companies are still waiting to go home. Travel restrictions from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and various international governments complicated efforts to repatriate crew members, making it both expensive and challenging.
In the Caribbean, many islands required company-sponsored land quarantines for crew
members before they could return home to their families. Mauritius required the same, and only allowed for a few hundred workers to return home each month.
Roger Frizell, a spokesperson for Carnival Corporation, said the company has repatriated every crew member who wanted to return home. Jonathon Fishman, a spokesperson for Royal Caribbean Group, said that 30 crew members from Vietnam and Trinidad and Tobago are still waiting to go home. Spokespeople for Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and MSC Cruises did not respond to requests for comment about the number of crew on their ships still waiting to go home.
Some at sea for more than a year have described extreme distress, including suicidal thoughts.
“It’s too much, one year is too much,” said one crew member who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. “It’s very disappointing to see how they think about the business, and they don’t think about the people
who haven’t gone home.”
Other long-trapped crew members said they too felt traumatized and wonder whether they should return to work at sea.
“After this experience, I doubt it,” a Celebrity Cruises crew member from the Dominican Republic recently told the Miami Herald, requesting anonymity for fear of retaliation from the company. “It was a traumatic experience being on the ship for so long, locked in a cabin and not knowing when you would leave the ship.”
For others, the decision is more complicated. With the virus still surging in many parts of the world, unemployment remains high, and cruise ships, once they’re operating again, offer a rare chance at a stable job.
Companies have canceled U.S. cruises until at least Jan. 1 as they prepare to protect passengers and crew from the virus. The CDC lifted its cruise ban this month but put in its place a new requirements companies will have to meet before they can welcome passengers again.