Coronavirus (Image: CSIRO)

With Australians still struggling to comprehend why thousands of passengers were allowed to disembark the Ruby Princess, enabling them to spread COVID-19 to all corners of the country, authorities are now grappling with another problem: what about crew members still on board the ship? 

The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) estimates thousands of crew members are stranded on board the Ruby Princess and dozens of other cruise liners now anchored off the coast of Australia — many of them foreign workers. 

Crikey spoke to the wife of one Filipino worker stuck on board the contaminated Ruby Princess. Speaking anonymously for fear of repercussions for her husband, she said she was worried about him as he had fallen ill and did not know when he would be able to return home. 

“The only thing he knows is that the crew members were waiting for the call from head office if they are gonna be sent home or they will stay on board,” she said.

“I’m so worried … Because here in the Philippines the cases of coronavirus are still rising … and we are on a lockdown. We’re not allowed to go outside.”

The woman’s husband has since recovered from a fever, but she believes many crew members are unwell and stuck in their cabins under isolation. 

Crikey asked Australian Border Force and Carnival Corp, the company that owns the Ruby Princess, what happens next for the crew members on board the anchored vessels. Both refused to answer questions, with Carnival Corp referring all matters to the industry lobby group, Cruise Lines International Association Australasia.

“All crew continue to be provided for, and on-board medical services are available to monitor and manage crew health,” the group said in a statement. “Any crew illness would be reported and managed in consultation with state health authorities.”

NSW Health failed to respond to Crikey’s questions. It told the Sydney Morning Herald during the week that all ships would be required to report on the health status of their crew, and if any developed acute respiratory symptoms, the ship was required to obtain a swab for COVID-19 testing.

MUA secretary Paul Garrett told Crikey there was a “vacuum of information” about what was happening to stranded workers. 

“We’re worried about crew members … These workers are often exploited, underpaid and not treated well. They are employed on ships that don’t even have the Australian flag on them. They’re registered in Panama, or the Bahamas,” he said.

“We’re estimating around 2000 crew members are currently stuck off the Sydney coast. Their future at the moment is unknown.”

Garrett said the scale of the problem was significant and urged the government to take action. 

“We want the government to go on board these ships and put in place a real plan to address this issue.”