Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne was all praise last Saturday for the Uruguayan government as over 100 Australians and New Zealanders left Uruguay on a chartered flight after being stranded for two weeks aboard the virus-infected cruise ship Greg Mortimer at Rio de Plata 20 kilometers from Uruguay’s coast in Montevideo.
The ship had been blocked from docking after 128 of 217 people aboard were found positive for coronavirus. The Uruguayan and Australian governments quickly agreed on a ”sanitary corridor” from the port to the international airport, where the ship passengers boarded a flight for Melbourne, Australia, ending their nightmare of an enforced stay aboard the detained ship.
Minister Payne expressed her special thanks to Uruguay’s Foreign Minister Ernesto Talvi, along with the health, emergency, and other workers involved, for the special arrangements that enabled the 217 people aboard the cruise ship – both those who had tested negative and those confirmed with the virus — to fly home.
The passengers in two other cruise ships had earlier suffered so many difficulties due to government restrictions brought about by fear of the emerging coronavirus pandemic.
The Diamond Princess was detained off the coast of Yokohama early in February by Japan’s Ministry of Health which laid out testing and quarantine protocols for all the guests and crew. The virus, however, spread while the ship was docked. Neither the Japanese government nor the ship management would accept any blame for what became the biggest concentration of coronavirus infection outside of China at the time. Over 540 get infected out of about 3,700 passengers and crew during the quarantine period.
A second cruise ship, the Grand Princess, was held off the coast of San Francisco in the United States about a month later, after a passenger died after testing positive for coronavirus. The ship had sailed from San Francisco to Mexico, on to Hawaii, then sailed back to San Francisco. It was, however, told to stay in international waters off the coast of California, as the passengers were tested, with a helicopter flying the blood samples every day to a laboratory in California.
The last few weeks have seen many cruise ships facing problems around the world as the COVID-19 infected many of their passengers and port countries feared them as bearers of the epidemic. The Montevideo incident turned out to be different from all previous reports on desperate passengers stranded on detained ships. Uruguayans waved goodbye as the Australians and New Zealanders rode to the airport where one jubilant passenger kissed the runway tarmac.
It was one virus nightmare which had ended well, for the officials had agreed to work together in what Uruguay’s Foreign Minister Talvi called a “complex but necessary humanitarian mission.”