Linda and her fellow crew were allowed to use all the recreational areas of their luxury cruise ship, while they float on Philippine waters. This is their view on Friday, April 17, a day before they may finally be allowed to set foot on their home country.
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For cruise ship crew waiting to come home, it's a bitter-'suite' life
Kristine Joy Patag (Philstar.com) - April 17, 2020 - 6:29pm

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 4:36 p.m., April 18)— Long weeks of staying afloat in Philippine waters for more than 300 crew members of a cruise ship will finally come to an end. 

The crew of an Australian ship—one of a handful loitering in Philippine seas—may soon be allowed to set foot on their home country and reunite with their families.

Every day since March, *Linda and some 300 Filipino crew members of an Australian cruise ship have been biding their time and waiting for word on when they can come home.

“For a month, all of the ships were just floating until our company coordinated with [the Philippine] government, then we were allowed [to get ready to dock] and they gave a schedule of the port and arrival,” Linda, a 43-year-old waitress, told Philstar.com in an online exchange.

They have not had a guest aboard their ship—built to billet thousands in luxury—since March.

According to their company schedule given April 14, Linda's ship is set to dock on April 20, but they were informed that they can dock on Saturday, April 18. 

A new rule from the Philippine government, however, may mean that they may not be able to see their families immediately since they may need to go through another 14-day quarantine. 

She noted this would be another two-week quarantine on top of around a month and a half they have already spent floating in a sort of quarantine-era limbo, stretching their time away from their loved ones in this time of pandemic.

Linda and her fellow crew on the ship are just a few hundred of thousands of Filipinos on other vessels, waiting for word on when they will be able to dock and disembark.

IATF allows cruise ships to dock

Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles on Thursday said that the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases agreed to allow foreign cruise ships carrying Filipino crew to dock in Manila ports.

A circular from the Department of Health's Bureau of Quarantine dated April 16 also stated that cruise ships may be used as quarantine facility under Republic Act 9271, the Quarantine Act of 2004.

"All repatriates must complete the 14-day quarantine period," the document read.

Linda said the cruise company previously entered into an agreement with the government that “our medical team will provide clearance of every single crew member, and then we will undergo a [Department of Health] clearance when we arrive in the Philippines."

She said that if cleared by the DOH, they would be allowed to go on home quarantine.

This arrangement seems to have been voided by the latest IATF decision.

‘Singing contests, jamming sessionswith social distancing’

Linda said they were fortunate that their company is taking good care of them. They were each given their own cabins to minimize interaction among the crew and they have access to the ship's facilities to help them get through the long and suddenly idle hours.

Those hours have been spent in relative leisure punctuated by cleaning and sanitation.

"Before you can enter the gym, you need to wash and disinfect your hands. And before you touch any equipment, you have to sanitize it,” Linda shared. Failure to comply with sanitation practices will earn a crew member a warning and the possible loss of access to the facilities.

In the past days, they have had Bible studies, table tennis tournaments, singing contests and regular "jamming sessions"—all done with everyone a safe distance from each other.

"Crowding is not allowed," she explained, and cleanliness is mandatory.

"All of us are monitoring and sanitizing the whole ship. We don’t have work, so the crew helps sanitize the whole ship," she said.

Since sailing, the hundreds of crew members have been practicing social distancing and have had their body temperatures checked twice a day.

“We don’t have a single case here,” she said, hopeful that this means she will see her family sooner.

Despite the safe and relatively comfortable environment she has been staying in, Linda and the rest of the crew long to be with their families amid the health crisis.

She is a single mother whose children are in Pampanga with her 80-year-old mother. She said she has not been able to send money to them for nearly two months because they were not allowed to go ashore even when they were in Australia. That meant no trips to remittance centers.

Linda said they are all waiting for an announcement from their company, or from the Philippine government, on when they can finally disembark.

PCG: Disembarkation has started

The Philippine Coast Guard confirmed to Philstar.com that “docking of cruise ship crew started yesterday (April 16).”

“We have regular schedule of [docking] until May 10 to 12,” Commodore Armando Balilo, PCG spokesperson, said in a message sent through the coast guard's Public Information Office.

Balilo, in a separate message, explained that crew members of passenger vessels that stopped operating due to COVID-19 "may be allowed to disembark as long as they have fulfilled 14 days quarantine onboard [since] the time they departed from their last port."

The cruise ship must ensure that no one visited or joined them in the last 14 days, a precaution that the ship where Linda is on has already taken.

"The ship master must communicate this in writing with the [National Headquarters-PCG] with supporting documents to attest the fulfilment of the mentioned parameters," he added.

In a text message on Saturday, the coast guard spokesperson said the Bureau of Quarantine will board the ships when they are in Philippine waters and "determine if their stay onboard ship inside Phillippines territory is compliance already with the 14-day quarantine requirement."

The PCG said that there are two ships scheduled to dock on Saturday, but it has yet to confirm whether Linda's ship is among those.

Despite the pronouncements, anxiety will remain with Linda and her shipmates until they finally set foot on dry land.

Asked on Saruday which cruise ships are already set to dock, Balilo answered: "None yet."

‘Please do not turn us away’

Linda also shared that she and the other crew members hope they will not be turned away amid strict quarantine measures and a lingering fear of infection.

After a gruelling journey to arrive in their hometowns, some repatriated OFWs still find blocks along the road as some local government units refuse them entry.

A report by UNTV quoted Overseas Workers Welfare Administion chief Hans Leo Cacdac as saying in Filipino: “I wish their LGUs will accept them because they completed their 14-day quarantine. They are asymptomatic. They are not sick.”

Linda said: "Accept us wherever we will come home to. It is very hurtful if we will be discriminated and our fellow Filipinos will tell us to go on quarantine because we want to be with our families."

She stressed that if there is a confirmed case in their ship, she would not have come home. “I will not let harm come to my children and family.”

The Philippines on Friday reported 218 new COVID-19 infections, bringing the national tally to 5,878. The number of deaths is at 387 while 487 have so far recovered.

COVER STORY COVID-19 NOVEL CORONAVIRUS PHILIPPINE COAST GUARD
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