The Apex was nearly finished. A brand new cruise ship for the Celebrity Cruises line, it was a towering, 117,000-ton vessel with luxuries like a “resort deck” featuring martini-glass-shaped jacuzzis and a movable platform cantilevered off the side – known as “the Magic Carpet” – to be used as an outdoor restaurant. As the builders put the finishing touches to it, the company held parties for crew and contractors, even as the rest of the world was shutting down to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Alexandra Nedeltcheva was one of the waiters. Though she avoided the parties, she served the contractors and crew at one of the ship’s restaurants. She says she contracted Covid-19 before the Apex even left port.
“It’s really scary, you don’t know how long it’s going to last,” says a coughing Nedeltcheva. She says she had trouble getting anyone to respond to her calls for medicine and help. “When I called medical and said, ‘can you get me some medicine, my head is going to explode’, they said, ‘there are people sicker than you, stay where you are’.”
She is one of more than 100 Celebrity Cruises crew members who have joined a class-action suit filed against the company on 14 April, alleging it failed to take timely action to protect workers, despite having weeks of notice that coronavirus was spreading worldwide.
The ship is not an exception. Across the world, a Guardian investigation has uncovered at least 50 ships facing outbreaks of Covid-19 among the crew.
Nedeltcheva, who managed to catch a charter flight to her home city in Bulgaria, may have been one of the lucky ones.
Upwards of 100,000 other crew members – including hundreds of her colleagues aboard the Apex – remain trapped on their ships.
Most have no communication with the outside world, and the ones who do are often scared of losing any prospect of future work by complaining. In the course of the Guardian’s investigation, however, a portrait has begun to emerge of what is effectively a nation of floating castaways, marooned on boats from the Galapagos Islands to the port of Dubai.
The first cruise ship to face Covid-19 cases, the Diamond Princess, was quarantined at dock in Japan for two weeks starting on 3 February. But cruises kept departing until mid-March. Although most passengers have since been repatriated, Covid-19 outbreaks continue to spread among the crew stuck on the ships. Last week employees aboard the Queen Victoria, which had just pulled into Southampton, were told they would have to quarantine in their cabins for 14 days because Covid-19 cases had been confirmed aboard, according to a recording of the captain’s announcement obtained by Business Insider.
In the US the situation was so grim aboard the Oasis of the Seas, from which rescue crews have repeatedly evacuated sick workers to hospitals in Florida, that the captain made an announcement over the loudspeaker asking crew members not to video their co-workers being taken off the ship in ambulances, according to an account from an employee given to the Miami Herald.
Another member of the class-action suit against Celebrity Cruises, which is owned by Royal Caribbean, is Julia Melim, a US resident who hosted the Celebrity Infinity’s shopping and port-tourism show on the shipboard TV channel. Melim was one of only seven crew members allowed to leave the ship in Miami last week. The rest remain aboard. She says there was so much sickness that the ship’s medical personnel cleared out the whole third floor to isolate and treat people who had symptoms.
The cruise industry says cruise lines were just as blindsided by the pandemic as the rest of the world and that those on ships haven’t suffered higher infection rates than those on land.
A spokesperson for Celebrity Cruises said: “We have no higher priority than keeping our guests and crew safe, healthy, cared for and well-informed. We have at all times worked in close coordination with government and health authorities and are grateful for their guidance. We are working with all appropriate authorities to ensure the safe return home of all our crew members.”
The Cruise Line Industry Association says it is still assembling information on how many of its ships have been affected, but says it so far knows of 899 confirmed cases of Covid-19 on board 15 ocean-going cruise ships.
“This accounts for 0.06% of confirmed cases globally,” said the association in a statement. “It is hard to tell how many of those confirmed cases are crew members, as we are still in the process of collecting that information as well.”
Those numbers appear to grossly underestimate the problem, given that the Diamond Princess alone had more than 600 cases. Another cruise ship, the Ruby Princess, which is blamed for spreading the disease around Australia in March, has now surpassed the Diamond Princess in the scale of its deadly outbreak – 21 people died and 900 were infected aboard the ship.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has specifically identified cruise ships as being global spreaders of coronavirus.
“Cruise ships are often settings for outbreaks of infectious diseases because of the semi-enclosed environment and contact between travelers from many countries,” said a 4 April CDC order, barring those leaving cruise ships from taking any commercial flights in the US. “Outbreaks of Covid-19 on cruise ships pose a risk for rapid spread of disease beyond the voyage.”
Most ships have only one doctor and a few nurses for thousands of passengers and crew, workers say The ships generally rely on hospitals on shore for urgent care. Because of the pandemic, however, the US and other ports are refusing to take all but the most dire cases.
“They are basically getting no healthcare,” says Michael Winkleman, the attorney in Miami who filed the class-action suit. “They are locked in their rooms and told they can call an advice line for help. But when they call, no one comes.”
Cruise lines have little recourse in seeking government help for urgent healthcare. While many of the major cruise companies, including Carnival and Royal Caribbean, are headquartered in the US, the companies are registered in low-tax countries. Carnival is technically a Panamanian company and Royal Caribbean is registered in Liberia, meaning they pay almost no US taxes.
Likewise their ships are typically flagged in countries such as the Bahamas or Bermuda, which allows them to avoid strict safety standards, labour laws and environmental restrictions they might otherwise face in the US.
US Coast Guard officials said in a memo on 29 March that outbreaks aboard ships are straining the rescue and medical resources in the Florida region. The bulletin, first obtained by the Miami Herald, asked ships carrying more than 50 people to prepare to provide their own medical care to those onboard for extended periods.
“Foreign-flagged ships that loiter beyond US territorial seas, particularly those registered in the Bahamas” should seek assistance from the countries where they are flagged, it added.
Officials in the Bahamas responded with their own memo, saying the medical system of the tiny Caribbean island nation would be overwhelmed if it had to take on caring for all those sick aboard cruise ships.
“The cruise industry is facing an unprecedented crisis, and we in the Bahamas, facing the same global crisis, are doing what we can to provide support,” said the statement by the ministry of transport and local government. “Our system is not designed to deal with a massive influx of new Covid-19 patients from outside our country.”
On some ships, crew members say they are being treated well, and some have been moved to passenger cabins with balconies and more space in which to spend their quarantine. Crew on the Celebrity Serenade made a parody video of their time confined to their cabins at sea. Some reported getting bonuses from their cruise lines. The Celebrity Edge, currently floating in the Bahamas, distributed a video of the ship’s captain delivering meals to the rooms of quarantined workers.
On other ships, the situation is dire. Workers have complained that food seemed to be running out, and that they were forced to pay for internet time.
Many crew have had their pay cut off entirely. Workers on board several ships run by the Geneva-based MSC cruise line, according to letters from MSC seen by the Guardian, are no longer being paid after their contracts ran out or were terminated early by the company because of the global pandemic.
A spokesperson for MSC cruises said: “MSC Cruises has taken the difficult decision to temporarily suspend its cruise ship operations. As this health crisis has caused all our ships globally to stop operating, we have temporarily agreed to relieve the majority of our crew from their duties and are working to identify and pay for flight tickets for each and every one to safely return home for the duration of the temporary suspension of ships’ operations. We are offering all those who remain on board full board and lodging free of charge, assigning each of them a guest cabin for individual use.”
A former crew member for another major cruise liner, Krista Thomas, who lives in Vancouver, has been running a private Facebook group to update crew members at sea about how to get home.
She says many crew are scared to speak out. They depend on the cruise industry for livelihoods, and cruise ship pay – while low compared to average wages in many developed countries – is often many times higher than what they can earn at home.
“They’re probably not just taking care of a wife and kids; they’re taking care of parents and in-laws,” says Thomas. “They are living contract to contract to get by … They don’t want to tear the industry down. It has taken a huge hit because of what’s happened and they don’t want to see their industry fall apart.”
Ross Klein, who has written books criticising the cruise industry and runs a website that reports incidents involving cruises, says crew members from developing countries “are in as close to indentured servitude as it gets”. He argues that the cruise companies bear a responsibility to care for them.
“The workers are powerless,” he says. “The employers have a moral and ethical duty to care for these people they brought from around the world. There have got to be ways to work out a solution to get these people safely home.”
Alexandra Nedeltcheva, still experiencing the symptoms of Covid-19, has had to pay for an Airbnb to quarantine near her home in Bulgaria, so she doesn’t expose her family. She still worries about her friends aboard the Celebrity Apex in Saint-Nazaire in France. There, as of 14 April, two workers remained hospitalised with severe Covid-19 and 700 crew were still working or isolating, according to a report by a French TV station.
Nedeltcheva says she has enjoyed seeing the world in her 11 years working with Celebrity Cruises, but the treatment she says crew have received during the pandemic has opened her eyes.
“I really want something to change,” she says. “They can take much better care of their crew. It’s time the cruising industry does better.”