Dubai: When an Emirati couple from Dubai boarded the Coral Princess cruise ship on March 5th, they could not have anticipated the nightmare that lay ahead. The cruise was intended to take a 14-day trip around South America from Santiago, Chile to Buenos Aires, Argentina, but it turned into a 32-day ordeal after the breakout of coronavirus onboard.
“The cruise started off peacefully,” said the Emirati woman, who wishes to remain anonymous. “Everyone was enjoying their hobbies quietly. But in the following days, cases of COVID-19 began to rise in South America” - at the time of boarding neither Chile or Argentina had any reported cases. “Then came the announcement [on March 12th] that it was now a pandemic.”
During a stormy night on board, the Emirati couple decided that the safest option was to disembark at the next stop.
“On March 15th we packed to disembark at Buenos Aires, and booked tickets from there to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil then back to Dubai,” says the 37-year-old woman.
Yet their plans were scuppered by an announcement from the captain saying that the ship was denied entry to Argentina. The cruise proceeded on to Montevideo, Uruguay on March 18 only to be told that Uruguayan authorities had also denied the ship entry.
Amidst the confusion onboard, the Emirati woman describes the support they got from the UAE embassy. She tells Gulf News, “We got daily calls from the embassy to check up on us, it makes me very proud. Other passengers were even impressed at how calm we were because we were constantly reassured by the UAE consulates.”
Captain's announcement brings hope
“After many negotiations Argentina accepted our entry [on March 19th], on the condition that everyone on board gets tested,” the Emirati woman added. “It was a stressful experience because your results could affect thousands of passengers.”
The results came back and the captain announced, “Everyone on Coral Princess is healthy.”
The couple expressed the joy that filled the cruise that day as people began to pack, unaware that the worst was yet to come.
COVID-19 enters the ship
Hundreds of people began to gradually disembark in Argentina and head to the airports on March 20th. The Emirati couple were unable to leave the ship yet as they waited for approval on their flights.
“We were at dinner when the captain announced that many of the people who headed to the airports already, were stuck as their flights were cancelled. They were asked to return to the ship,” she said. She shares on Instagram, videos of the people from the airports arriving back to the ship and being welcomed back warmly.
“We didn’t know it at the time, but that’s when the virus entered the ship.”
Approval from Florida
News came that the United States would permit entry in Miami, Florida. The trip would take 14 more days and the passengers, still unaware of the virus, were reassured.
“On March 29th, which was 10 days after the passengers returned from the airports, symptoms began to arise. The captain asked us to stay in our cabins from that day onwards,” the woman describes. Adding to their stress was the fact that the internet got disconnected, and the couple were unable to communicate with their families anymore. This was particularly difficult for the Emirati woman as she had just received news that a family member in Dubai had passed away, leaving her emotional and worried.
An unplanned stop in Barbados to get some passengers tested again, confirmed everyone’s biggest fear. The captain announced that those tested were all confirmed positive for coronavirus.
“There were many elderly people on the cruise, people I’ve spoken to and connected with, and I was worried about their health,” said the woman.
As the ship arrived in Florida, the captain gave the most difficult announcement yet.
“Unfortunately, I have some very sad news to share. Two of our guests have passed away last evening while being treated.”
Ambulances in Miami received the two passengers who had passed away.
“On April 5th passengers who were tested positive were received by ambulances. During that time a third passenger passed away. Others began to disembark afterwards based on demographics. Australians and Europeans were the first to leave as they were largest group.”
The woman shared videos of her waving to her neighbours as they gradually began to leave over the following days. The Emirati couple were the only Arabs on board, leading to a long wait until they were permitted to disembark.
The couple walked out of the ship on April 10th, reflecting on the many people they met and connected with during this tragic experience. From Miami International Airport they flew to London Heathrow, where 30 hours later they were on a free-of-charge Emirates Airlines flight bringing them back home.
“I want to send a message to all my friends from the Coral Princess cruise ship and share a warm hello from the UAE. I hope that we can meet again one day,” the woman told Gulf News after her safe arrival in Dubai on Saturday.
“I want people to learn patience from my story and to learn that despite our differences, we came together during this crisis to support each other and spread positivity.”