Afloat in the time of pandemic

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    Data from Department of Foreign Affairs showed that as of July 13, a total of 82,057 overseas Filipinos from 60 countries and 132 cruise ships have already been repatriated because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of this number, 38,308 are sea-based.

    WHEN the ports closed and passengers around the world were left stranded at sea due to the coronavirus disease outbreak, many questions formed in the mind of Joel Navarro and other crew members onboard the Celebrity Reflection cruise ship.

    Navarro was only deployed last year and his first time to be onboard a cruise ship.

    “It was my dream. When I gave up a career in Public Relations, I took up Culinary Arts and that’s when I decided to work in a Cruise ship. I just felt that I can be trained well on an international stage,” Navarro said.

    Every year, data from the Phil. Overseas Employment Administration show that at least 1 million Filipinos are deployed in different countries. About 10 percent of the total are seabased OFWs.

    During the first semester of 2018, the number of seabased OFWs nearly breached 100,000.

    Then the COVID-19 pandemic came.

    Navarro was among the more than 200,000 overseas Filipinos (OFWs) stranded in various countries because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “(We were) confused with things that was going on. I was thinking of my family here. Then how can we go back to work? When will these pandemic end? Up until now some of my questions still need answers,” Navarro said.

    Data from Department of Foreign Affairs showed that as of July 13, a total of 82,057 overseas Filipinos from 60 countries and 132 cruise ships have already been repatriated.
    Of this number, 38,308 are sea-based and 43,749 are land-based.

    Navarro said the management decided not to finish the last cruise before they went on lockdown, but the crew members were informed of the situation and continued to attend to the needs of guests.

    He had to make significant adjustments to his work technique and attitude as well as to the team relationship to cope with the changes brought about by the health crisis.

    “The operations have stopped last March and the management needed to restructure our working assignments,” Navarro said. They were given day-offs which does not normally happen.

    When the management saw that the pandemic will last much longer, the crew members were informed of their last day of work and the manpower reduction being done.

    “Selected essential crew members have to work for those who are trapped,” said Navarro, whose contract was cut to five months due to the pandemic. “This is totally fine with me.

    As long as I am safe. Money is out of the question.”

    Navarro did not expect that the prevention and control measures will have to be imposed for a longer period. He felt paranoid while working overseas during a pandemic.

    “We were still working while the rest of the world is on lockdown. We needed to work together, stay focused, and be healthy for our families,” he said.

    He said the entire ship was kept clean, safety measures were observed, and training and lectures on public health were conducted.

    By May, the repatriation programs of various countries were rolled out. The Filipinos in Celebrity Cruises who are in America were transferred to Celebrity Equinox where they were told to practice social distancing and wear face masks.

    Also, guests’ amenities were shut down, social events and gatherings were banned, smoking and drinking were controlled, cabin visits were prohibited, and curfew hours were set.

    Navarro admitted the experience was difficult at first given the restrictions, but his hope of coming home soon kept him going.

    His cruise ship never failed to issue warnings, conduct surveys, and gave bi-weekly updates about the repatriation program.

    “Our daily routine would consist of waking up, exercising, eating, walking a little around the ship, watching television shows, using social media, taking photos, and then going back to sleep,” he said.

    He drew his strength from his family whom he got to talk to every day and his cruise ship friends – Rommel, Jade, Jilmark, Jorge, Vanesa, Patrick, Apple, Nico, Edward, Jimboy, Nica, and Irene.

    Now back with his family here in the Philippines, Navarro said this experience taught him to be patient and keep a kind heart and open mind.

    Altough relatively new in the Philippines, cruising has been the preferred alternative to travel for decades now to many people in Europe and the Americas.

    Here in the Philippines, the Department of Tourism is starting to strengthen cruise tourism so it becomes a driver of foreign visitor arrivals. As an archipelago with over 7000 islands, and with one of the world’s longest coastlines, the Philippines should be a natural market for the industry. However, due to underdeveloped facilities and a lack of promotion, the country was historically overlooked as a destination, with the South-east Asian cruise map dominated by Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand, followed by Hong Kong, China and Taiwan.

    And Navarro sees the industry going back to its heyday as soon as this pandemic is over.

    “Our company is still seeing the potential. I am also now thinking of ways for guests to enjoy the cruise ship more than the ports,” Navarro said.

    Navarro also said the love that people have for cruises will still be there after the pandemic, but guests will now be more vigilant and careful.

    As part of the food and beverage department, Navarro noted how dining will be a lot different now following the health crisis.

    Despite what he went through, Navarro said he will sail again.

    “I am very much hoping and willing (to work on a crusie ship). I have plans actually of climbing the ladder of the hospitality industry. After cruise ships, then maybe hotels. It all depends on God’s will.”