Sihanoukville, Preah Sihanouk: All passengers and crew aboard Holland America’s MS Westerdam cruise ship, which docked in Sihanoukville, will be allowed to disembark after medical tests showed that none of them are infected with COVID-19, or commonly known as coronavirus.
The ship docked at Sihanoukville Autonomous Port yesterday morning and none was allowed to disembark after reports that 20 passengers had fallen ill, some with stomach aches and others with flu-like symptoms.
Before the ship docked, a medical team went out to sea and visited the vessel to take samples from the affected passengers. The samples were then airlifted to the Pasteur Institute for tests to see if they were infected by the coronavirus.
Health Ministry spokesman Or Vandine said late last night that the institute tests came out negative and further, all passengers and crew, numbering over 2200, will be allowed to disembark this morning.
“We have just received information from Pasteur Institute that all 20 samples tested negative for COVID-19,” she said.
Preah Sihanouk provincial police chief Major General Chuon Narin said yesterday that when the ship docked at port, a joint government working group boarded it and all the other passengers and crew underwent medical checks and were found to be healthy.
He said that the passengers will be allowed to disembark and will be provided with free visas.
“Immigration police and health officials checked their documents after they underwent the medical check-ups,” he said.
The MS Westerdam, owned by the Holland America Line, was turned away from Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, Guam and the Philippines due to fears over the spread of COVID-19.
It was on a 14-day Taiwan and Japan cruise that departed Hong Kong on February 1 with 1,455 guests and 802 crew members on board.
Prime Minister Hun Sen announced yesterday that he will go to the port to receive passengers who choose to leave the vessel and see them off as they board buses to head to the Sihanoukville airport for flights to Phnom Penh and onward to their respective home countries.
“Because of peace in Cambodia, I decided to allow entry for a cruise ship to dock at Sihanoukville Autonomous Port to assist those who have been on the ship for 13 days to return to their countries safely,” the premier wrote on his Facebook page. “Tomorrow morning, February 14, I will welcome them in Sihanoukville as a responsible host and show solidarity with them.”
Yesterday morning, representatives of the US embassy, USADC officials, Dutch embassy officials and others were at the dock to welcome their respective citizens but were not allowed on board the ship.
Provincial Hall spokesman Kheang Phearom said yesterday that passengers are expected to be allowed to disembark today. He said about 500 or 600 passengers have already bought air tickets to fly back to their home countries.
He said 36 buses are ready to ferry the passengers to Sihanoukville International Airport for flights to Phnom Penh International Airport from where they will depart on their onward journeys.
Mr Phearom noted that the majority of passengers, 651, are from the United States.
“There are 1,455 passengers of 41 nationalities,” Mr Phearom said.
He said that there are 271 Canadians, 127 Britons, 91 Dutch, 79 Australians, 57 Germans and other nationalities on board.
According to an immigration police report, there are 802 crew members, including 362 Indonesians, 260 Filipinos, 24 Dutch, 23 Indians and 15 Americans.
US Embassy spokeswoman Emily Zeeberg said via email yesterday the embassy in Phnom Penh is working closely with the government to help facilitate the docking and safe disembarkation of US nationals.
“We will continue to work with the Westerdam and Cambodian authorities in assisting US citizens to disembark and transfer to onward destinations,” she said.
Provincial governor Kuoch Chamroeun said yesterday that the ship is expected to leave the port on February 17. He said provincial officials will take care of those who remain in Sihanoukville until the vessel departs.
Doung Sokhon, 37, from Sihanoukville, said yesterday that residents are worried since they heard the news that Cambodia had agreed to let the cruise ship dock while other countries have not let it in.
“Yes, we are worried [about COVIDE 19] since Cambodia has allowed to let the ship dock at Preah Sihanoukville port,” he said. “We are worried since there was a coronavirus case here,” he said.
He was referring to the case of Chinese national Jia Jianhua, 60, and three family members who were quarantined last month after arriving from China.
Mr Jia tested positive for the virus and received treatment till he recovered fully.
World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus thanked the Cambodian government for allowing the MS Westerdam, which has been turned away from many countries, to dock at Sihanoukville Autonomous Port.
In a letter ahead of the ship’s arrival in Sihanoukville, Mr Tedros praised the Kingdom for allowing MS Westerdam to dock.
Mr Tedros said he had talked to Health Minister Mam Bun Heng and thanked him, especially Prime Minister Hun Sen, for allowing the cruise ship to dock in the Kingdom.
“This is an example of the international solidarity we have consistently been calling for,” he said. “Outbreaks can bring out the best and worst in people.”
“Stigmatising individuals or entire nations does nothing but harm the response,” he added.
In an interview with Fresh News on Wednesday night, Mr Hun Sen said that MS Westerdam was allowed entry in a bid to stamp out fear and discrimination.
“The real disease is fear, not the virus. We want to eliminate the fear of the disease,” he said. “The Kingdom has no discrimination. We must do humanitarian acts in a time of emergency.”