Waves of uncertainty: Seafarers reveal month-long ordeal on board cruise ships

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 28) — It was welcome news for thousands of overseas Filipino workers when President Rodrigo Duterte ordered government agencies to fast track their release from quarantine facilities.

But to hundreds of Filipino seafarers on board cruise ships in Manila, a new wave of uncertainty looms as they patiently await the results of their COVID-19 tests.

A 36 year-old seafarer belonging to the Majestic Princess cruise ship, who requested anonymity due to his current job, told CNN Philippines that out of 500 Filipino crew members on the ship, at least 200 are still waiting for their test results.

With a few days left in Duterte's one-week ultimatum in bringing the OFWs to their home provinces, the seafarers languishing on cruise ships are not optimistic that they can get their clearances in time.

Kung nawawala o hindi na makita yung test samples namin, ulitin na lang nila yung test at pakiprioritize nila," the seafarer lamented. "Hindi kasi fair na may mga bagong dating na barko at recently tested tapos sila ang unang nakababa."

[Translation: If they lost or misplaced our test samples, they should just repeat the test and prioritize it. It's not fair that newly arrived ships whose crew members were recently tested would be sent home first.]

The Majestic Princess arrived in Manila on April 23. The OFW said they were told to undergo the mandatory 14-day quarantine two days later. They also took the rapid antibody test as part of government's requirements for all returning OFWs to prevent importation of COVID-19 cases.

The government, however changed its policy on May 4, requiring all OFWs to undergo RT-PCR swab testing, the so-called gold standard in getting accurate diagnosis. Crew members on board Majestic Princess were swabbed on May 8.

Other crew members have received their test results and were allowed to disembark. But for the remaining 200 seafarers, the waiting and uncertainty are now taking a toll on their mental health.

“Mental health is starting to become a problem po dahil frustrated na po kami makauwi at desperate na rin (because we are frustrated and desperate to come home),” the OFW said.

What's more frustrating, he said, is the "lack of response" from government agencies tasked to handle the test results and the system in place for prioritizing those who came first in the country.

READ: More people getting anxious, depressed amid lockdown

The seafarers also expressed worry about the weather condition in Manila, saying it would be difficult to send them home once the rainy season starts.

"Kailangan po ma-emphasize na kapag nag-start na ang rainy season mahihirapan na kami na mai-transport because of the rough waters," the OFW added.

[Translation: It should be emphasized that once the rainy season starts, it will be difficult to have us transported because of rough waters.]

Czar Sabinorio, another crew member of the Majestic Princess, was one of the lucky ones who were able to disembark from the ship. She said she feels bad for those who were left behind.

Para kaming nakakulong na hindi mo alam kung kailan lalaya (We were like prisoners who do not know when we'd be released),” she said.

The Department of Foreign Affairs reported on Thursday that 30,541 OFWs have been repatriated since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. A total of 20,138 of them are seafarers from 97 cruise ships.

The Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) said it is working with the Philippine Coast Guard and Bureau of Quarantine to expedite the release of test results of the quarantined OFWs. OWWA Chief Hans Cacdac previously said they are ready to assist all OFWs who will be cleared by the BOQ until they reach their respective hometowns.

Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque in an online media briefing said more than 16,000 OFWs who tested negative for COVID-19 have been sent home. Duterte early this week ordered the release of 24,000 OFWs, who were stuck in Metro Manila waiting for the delayed release of their COVID-19 test results and certification.

The President's ultimatum was in response to complaints that several OFWs have been stranded in quarantine facilities for up to two months, waiting for the time they can finally be reunited with their families.

CNN Philippines' Eimor Santos contributed to their report.