SINGAPORE: It is a cruise to nowhere with a difference. Luxury cruise liner SuperStar Gemini has been repurposed to house hundreds of migrant workers who have recovered from COVID-19.
Docked at the Marina Bay Cruise Centre (MBCC), the cruise ship welcomed its first batch of guests on Apr 29. Currently, 1,500 migrant workers are on board the ship.
On the opposite side of the cruise centre, a second cruise ship, the SuperStar Aquarius, is also berthed with another 1,500 workers on board.
Both cruise ships were given the green light by the authorities last month to serve as alternative accommodation for migrant workers in bid to limit COVID-19 transmission within foreign worker dormitories.
The number of COVID-19 cases among migrant workers living in dormitories has surged in recent weeks, and now make up about 90 per cent of Singapore's 31,068 cases.
Among the workers being housed on the SuperStar Gemini is 42-year-old Indian national Rajagopal Sathiyavasan, who tested positive for the coronavirus in March after complaining of pain in his throat.
After a five-day stay at Tan Tock Seng hospital, the safety supervisor who works in plumbing and sanitation was moved to Bright Vision Hospital and later a hotel before being sent to live on board the cruise ship.
Rajagopal had watched as three other roommates in his dormitory contracted COVID-19 before he fell ill himself. For the father of a girl and boy aged 7 and 3, it was a terrifying experience.
“I was very scared because I didn’t know what the coronavirus could do. I couldn’t understand what was going on,” he said. “I didn’t inform my family during that period because I didn’t want to worry them.”
Two months on, Rajagopal is glad to have recovered and counts himself “lucky” to be able to experience staying in a ship like this. The Chennai native who has worked in Singapore for the past eight years said that he has spent his 10 days on board the ship mostly video calling his family.
“In the morning, I exercise and do yoga in my room, then I watch movies and programmes on my phone or the television,” he added.
Organisers say the cruise ships were chosen as their infrastructure allows fresh air to be filtered and supplied to the cabins and other common areas, ensuring minimal recirculation of air within the vessel.
They also have readily available rooms and en-suite toilets to minimise person-to-person contact.
The recovered migrant workers come from various community care facilities and community recovery facilities, and are only allowed to embark the ship when they are assessed to be well and no longer infectious.
When workers first arrive at the MBCC, they are subject to a medical screening in batches of 10. If they are found to still be in recovery, they are immediately sent back to the facilities they had come from.
Those who are not feeling well are sent to the sick bay or isolation area where a doctor will tend to them.
Next, they go through a security screening in batches of 10 as well. Before they board the cruise ship, workers are seated at a briefing area that is sanitised five times a day.
Here, they are briefed about the rules, meal times, recreational facilities, as well as the dos and don’ts on board the cruise. An introduction video explaining how to use certain features in their cabins is also played for the workers.
On board the ship, safe-distancing protocol, where people have to stand 1 metre apart and infection control measures such as the wearing of protective face masks, are strictly enforced.
Other measures taken include staircases being sectioned to allow only one way of movement and the frequent cleaning and sanitisation of commonly touched surfaces.
A maximum of two workers are allocated to cabins that are about 14.7 sq m to 20 sq m in size.
As workers are mostly confined to their rooms throughout the day, a mix of Tamil and English channels are available on their in-room televisions.
Laundry services and housekeeping services are also provided daily. During these periods, workers are allowed staggered recreational time outside of their rooms. While they are not allowed to walk around the ship, there are designated areas where they can sit and enjoy the ocean breeze for about 45 minutes.
Migrant workers are also been provided with Wi-Fi access and given SIM cards to help maintain social interaction.
A few decks above, a spacious restaurant has been converted into a cafeteria for the workers. A choice of Indian, vegetarian, and oriental bento boxes are available.
During these meal times, workers have to sit with others who are bunking in the same zone.
In an effort to keep the environment shared by 1,500 people as safe as possible, occupants are subject to daily temperature checks and will have their cabins cleaned and sanitised daily.
Migrant workers who are unwell have to disembark from the ship immediately for medical attention at the dedicated medical facility at the MBCC.
The end-goal is to house workers till the situation in the dormitories stabilises. About 200 foreign workers have disembarked from the cruise since the middle of May.
“IT WAS QUITE A FEAT FOR ALL OF US”
Mr Lionel Wong, CEO of SATS-Creuers Cruise Services and Mr Michael Goh, president of Dream Cruises, and head of International Sales for Genting Cruise Lines said they only had a matter of days to set everything in motion, once they received the go-ahead from the Government. This included “learning to understand the full role of medical dormitory management” to ironing out the kinks related to coordinating the logistics and welfare for the workers.
“There was a lot of preparation done for this. It was not just a case whereby someone said 'Let’s bring in a ship because we want to convert it into a dorm.' In the first place, none of us … have ever run a dorm before," said Mr Wong.
"None of us have ever provided the sort of attention and care to these workers like we are doing now. There has been a great learning curve for everybody."
The learning curve included the setting up of a medical centre at MBCC.
“We had three days to set up a medical centre. It was quite a feat for all of us,” he said.
“The teams have been working tirelessly throughout the whole period. I know for a fact that both ships’ Genting hotel managers sleep with the ear-piece and walkie-talkie next to their pillows every night. This is the kind of dedication you have from people on this project.”
For Mr Goh, the training process proved to be “really very complex”, because ultimately, they want the crew on board the ship as well as the migrant workers to be well-looked-after.
“(Elsewhere) in the world, there is no such arrangement to use a ship for recovered COVID-19 patients – this is a first. The process – whether land logistics, coordination, ship captain, hotel manager and the crew – there was a lot of training provided by the Ministry of Health to educate and teach our crew how to look after themselves and look after the migrant workers on board the ship,” he said.
“I FOUGHT THE COVID-19. I WON ALREADY”
Rajagopal’s experience could be testament to what organisers had worked hard for. He said he was “very happy” to be on the ship, much like how he had felt when he found out that he tested negative for COVID-19 in April.
“I fought the COVID-19 – I won already,” he said smiling behind his mask.
“I have no worries for now because everything is being taken care of for us. The food is also very nice,” said the safety supervisor who had worked at the Project Glory construction site.
“But I’m excited to go back to work because I need to earn money. It’s very boring in the room, I want to see my friends and relatives. I want to go outside and feel free.”