Australians Graham Pilsworth and Elaine Gustavino were on a trip of a lifetime when their Caribbean cruise transformed into a floating sickbay.
With about 1800 people on board, the cruise arrived in Puerto Rico March 8 when an Italian woman with breathing problems disembarked and who, along with her husband with whom she was traveling, tested positive for COVID-19. They are both in hospital.
“We only found out about the people taken off from friends. The ship never informed us.”
Costa Cruises said it was only notified of the positive results “several days” afterwards, on March 13 and 14.
When the cruise was denied access at Antigua and immediately set sail for Venice, Graham and Elaine knew something was wrong.
“When we asked our contact on board about going back to Fort Lauderdale [where the cruise began] he stated that this ship is going to Venice,” Graham told SBS Dateline via WhatsApp.
The next six days, Graham says, were spent ploughing through the Atlantic “making a lot of people seasick.”
Then the news got worse. A man who had a heart attack and was evacuated from the ship to the Cayman Islands late February had died from the coronavirus.
“We found out about the condition from Laura [their daughter] who read an article in the Cayman newspaper online. Nobody on the ship told us.”
“When we got to Tenerife, two more people were taken off. Nobody was allowed to leave.”
The Costa Luminosa is owned by the Crociere Group, Italy’s biggest tour operator.
Now, its one of dozens of cruise ships that are caught in the cross-fire of COVID-19.
The Australian government has its hands full. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade told SBS Dateline it is monitoring more than 30 cruise ships with over 3000 Australians on board.
Dubbed “floating hotels,” “hell ships” and “floating sick bays,” these cruises have been denied entry into countries who have closed their borders in the face of the pandemic. They include: The Pacific Princess docking in Western Australia, the Norwegian Jewel which is en route to Hawaii, and the Silver Explorer docked in Chile.
A DFAT spokesperson told SBS Dateline they are in discussions with Costa Cruises to support Australian passengers in relation to the Costa Luminosa and its other ships.
“Costa Cruises has assured Australian officials that it will arrange appropriate travel to enable Australian passengers to return home.”
When asked what arrangements were being made for Australians on board, a Costa Cruises representative replied in an email: “Still working on that, as you can imagine it's not easy to organize intercontinental flights during this period.”
Graham and Elaine had been confined to their rooms since March 16 before Australians on board were put on a bus to Rome last night.
Sammi Holt, another Australian who had been on board the ship, spoke to SBS Dateline while en route to Rome. She said she still doesn’t know when they will be able to return home.
While Costa Cruises has informed them a 14 day quarantine won’t be necessary before returning to home, the Australian embassy said they will be required by law to do so.
“You don’t know who to believe and if you listen to anything it’ll change another 10 times that day,” she told SBS Dateline via messenger.
DFAT told SBS Dateline the Australians will be required to quarantine for 14 days in a hotel and medical assistance will be provided if needed.
“DFAT is ready to provide consular support to those Australians on board when they disembark the vessel,” a DFAT spokesperson told SBS Dateline.
Both Sammi and Graham have said DFAT has been “wonderful at keeping contact,” though the uncertainty has been excruciating.
The Australians on board, however, feel the government in general has let them down.
“Action is required, not just words,” Graham said.
“We are fine but we feel abandoned by the government. Once again Scott Morrison is showing his leadership capabilities or lack of them.”
When asked if they are updated with plans on board, Graham said despite impressive catering and service staff, communication with management on the ship is, in his view, abysmal.
“The ship does not communicate with us and what they tell the media and their own government is not the truth. We only find out what is happening via social networks. Disgusting.”
“We were not supposed to leave our rooms but no one answers the reception phone and our on board contact is barely contactable.”
In a statement to SBS Dateline, Costa Cruises said “guests have been constantly informed about the situation.”
Sammi Holt is desperate to get home. Her experience on board has been a nightmare, she said, with
“I’m not even one of the sick ones, yet...with the stress of everything it will take its toll and if we’re not sick now ,we will be when we get home, if and when [we get home].”