Holland America Line president Orlando Ashford is pleading
for a port to allow two ships to disembark as they make their way from South
America to Florida after a weeks-long journey.
The Zaandam and Rotterdam are carrying 1,243 guests and
1,247 crew members. As of March 30, four passengers have died. Another 76
guests and 117 crew members have influenza-like symptoms. Eight have tested
positive for Covid-19.
“Already four guests have passed away and I fear other lives
are at risk,” wrote Ashford in a letter titled “A Humanitarian Crisis.”
The Zaandam has now been sailing for 28 days and has been
turned away from several ports in South America. It met up with the Rotterdam
off the coast of Panama over the weekend to deliver supplies and transfer
guests. Both ships are on their way to Fort Lauderdale, where officials have
said they don’t want them to disembark unless proper protocols are followed.
“We need confirmation from a port that is willing to extend
the same compassion and grace that Panama did and allow us to come in so our
guests can go straight to the airport for flights home,” Ashford said.
The saga began with the Zaandam departing Argentina on March
7 for a two-week South American voyage.
Ashford defended the decision to sail. He said when voyages
began in early March, South and North America had few confirmed coronavirus
cases. At the time, the Americas were not affected by travel and health
“Travel in all forms continued to bustle across the
continents as recently as mid-March — albeit with more personal hygiene
reminders,” he said. “Within a matter of days, that all changed.”
Local governments quickly closed their borders. Ships that
had been cleared for docking were turned away, he said.
“Officials denied repeated requests for access and
assistance and the world shut itself off, leaving ships stranded at sea to make
it on their own, which isn’t sustainable,” he said. “Eventually someone must
allow these ships in.”
He said that Holland America began monitoring passengers for
Covid-19 symptoms in early 2020. Along with other cruise lines, the company
suspended global cruise operations for 30 days on March 13, while the Zaandam
was already sailing. On Monday, Holland America extended its pause in cruise
operations through May 14.
The Zaandam’s original itinerary had its sailing ending on
March 21 in Chile. Ashford said once cruising operations were suspended, it tried
to find a place to disembark and fly its passengers home. Then Chile announced it
was closing borders on March 16, while the Zaandam was already in Punta Arenas
waiting for clearance to disembark. Ports in Peru, Argentina and elsewhere in
South America then closed.
“Repeated requests for humanitarian consideration were
denied,” Ashford said.
It wasn’t until March 22 that guests and crew on the Zaandam
started reporting flu-like symptoms.
“Despite countless desperate pleas in the following days, we
were forbidden to medevac critically ill patients to shore-side hospitals
(usually standard operating procedure for comprehensive care that ships aren’t
equipped to provide),” he said.
The Zaandam eventually ended up off the coast of Panama,
waiting in limbo for authorities to decide if it could be allowed to transit the
Panama Canal so it could sail to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale to end its
journey. It received that permission on the evening of March 29.
“We are dealing with a ‘not my problem’ syndrome,” Ashford
said. “The international community, consistently generous and helpful in the
face of human suffering, shut itself off to Zaandam leaving her to fend for
While in Panama, those guests who could “quickly and safely”
move to the Rotterdam did. The goal was to alleviate the workload of the
Zaandam crew and to get guests in inner cabins to rooms with windows and
verandahs. Passengers were screened following protocols from the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention before transferring over to the other ship. They
also wore face masks.
“To ensure everyone’s well-being, we did not move guests who
needed further screening or those likely to need ongoing support by the medical
team to Rotterdam,” he said.
“Reducing the guest count on Zaandam helps available staff
better serve those remaining on board. No guests who have been ill or
symptomatic were moved, nor were their close contacts.”
Guests on both ships are self-isolating in their staterooms.
Zaandam crew members were not moved over to the Rotterdam. The Zaandam received
medical supplies including Covid-19 tests, facemasks for guests and personal
protective equipment for crew. The Zaandam also got more medical staff.
“It’s important to remember passengers and crew did nothing
wrong,” Ashford said.
He ended by pleading for compassion.
“These travelers could have been any one of us or our
families — caught up by a fast-changing scenario nobody foresaw,” he said. “The
Covid-19 situation is one of the most urgent tests of our common humanity. To
slam the door in the face of these people betrays our deepest human values.”
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