The COVID-19 outbreak aboard Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen voyaging in Svalbard the latter of half of July that as of Monday has infected at least 40 crew and passengers, and put nearly 400 more under quarantine orders, is reviving fears of the virus locally – but spreading even more ill feeling globally about cruise liners resuming their voyages.
Hurtigruten, facing a barrage of hindsight criticism, announced Monday it is halting all expedition sailings until further notice due to “failure in several of our internal procedures.” Norwegian police and health agencies also announced they are investigating the company’s actions.
“A preliminary evaluation shows that there has been a failure in several of our internal procedures,” Hurtigruten CEO Daniel Skjeldam said. “Our own failure in procedures and increased infections internationally means that for the time being we are cancelling all our expedition cruise sailings both in and outside Norwegian waters.”
Among Hurtigruten’s failures locally was picking up two women brought to the Roald Amundsen from a boat in Longyearbyen and dropping them off at their remote cabin on the west coast of Spitsbergen, although both they and 10 people on a sailboat in subsequent contact with them that’s now in town have not been diagnosed with the virus, The Governor of Svalbard announced Monday.
But whatever threat the handling of the situation might have posed in terms of COVID-19 infections in Svalbard, one of the few remaining places on Earth with no diagnosed cases, the spread of further economic illness that’s already plagued the archipelago is almost certain to worsen barely a month after the lifting of a ban on all visitor traffic.
“Major blow for cruises as COVID-19 outbreak swamps one of the first sailings to return,” was the headline in one U.K. newspaper Sunday, while the news aggregate site Newser’s headline proclaimed “All the Passengers Got Off. Then Came the COVID-19 Tests.”
The articles and reader comments (i.e. “they were greedy and reckless”) in much of the global coverage might be described as harsh and harsher, respectively.
“This is a disaster for Hurtigruten,” wrote Tone Angell Jensen in a column for Nordlys. “The number of infections with COVID-19 is increasing enormously. It can end in serious illness and, in the worst case, death. How could that happen?”
“The news of the ship has also reached international media. For Hurtigruten, it is a reputation fall no one knows the outcome of. The last thing a cruise company that depends on foreign guests needs is a scandal like this.”
Svalbardposten reported Monday Tore Hoem, acting destination manager of Hurtigruten Svalbard, declined to comment on how the has outbreak and related events is affecting lost hotel and other business.
Online social media discussion about the outbreak that includes Svalbard’s relation to it has been especially active and harsh in a post on the Facebook page “Americans in Norway.”
“It matters 100 percent that this ship came from Svalbard. Sick people are not supposed to be there,” wrote Susanne Bogen, a commenter from Mo I Rana. In a subsequent comment she opined “it is almost as they didn’t think of Svalbard at all when they made changes for corona.”
Svalbard remains one of the few remaining places with no known cases in large part to extreme restrictions that went beyond the national quarantine, including the banning of all visitors and other non-permanent residents – and exiling those already here. But the restrictions, necessitated by local and national fears about Svalbard’s remoteness and lack of emergency/medical facilities, also resulted in the worst adverse economic impact by far nationwide as about 90 percent of workers in tourism-related businesses were laid off as virtually all activities came to a complete halt.
Pal Jakobsen, a spokesperson for Tromsø’s municipal government, told Agence France-Presse the outbreak is raising raises fears of a resurgence of cases in Norway.
The Newser article notes “among the ill crew members, 32 are from the Philippines, while others are from Norway, France, and Germany.” The passengers are also from multiple countries, making efforts to contain the spread of the virus from infected passengers in particular considerably more difficult. There were 209 guests on the July 17 voyage and 178 guests on July 24 voyage.
At the same time, an article in Cruise Critic, one of cruise tourism’s most-read news and reader forum sites, notes “while an unfortunate setback, the outbreak aboard Roald Amundsen is traceable and detectable due to the nature of cruising. Despite health protocols in place, similar outbreaks of COVID-19 have occurred across the globe on airlines, and on land at restaurants, fitness centers, and other large gatherings of people including churches.”
The Roald Amundsen did not make any port stops during its two week-long voyages to Svalbard that departed Tromsø on July 17 and 24 with 209 and 178 guests respectively, a fact omitted from virtually all news coverage and in some instances there have been incorrect claims the ship did dock here. But there was contact aboard the infected ship by Sunniva Sørby and Hilde Fålun Strøm, who’ve gained global notoriety for their historic “Hearts In The Ice” overwintering at a remote cabin on the coast of west Spitsbergen, as the two women were brought to the ship by a tender boat last Tuesday after restocking for supplies in Longyearbyen.
The two women were dropped off at their cabin the same day by the Roald Amundsen, an act Svalbard’s governor declared in violation of virus-related health restrictions, and two days later a sailboat with 10 people aboard was in contact with the couple. The sailboat was forced to anchor without letting the passengers and crew off when it reached Longyearbyen, but after Sørby and Strøm tested negative for the virus on Saturday and officials further investigated the situation aboard the sailboat the governor declared it was not a health risk.
“The 10 people on the sailboat who had contact with the two at the cabin can therefore be let ashore in Longyearbyen now,” Lt Gov. Sølvi Elvedahl. said in a prepared statement Monday. “The two people at the cabin will be routinely tested again on Monday.”
An e-mail by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health obtained Monday by Verdens Gang states the outbreak aboard the Roald Amundsen may have originated on another Hurtigruten vessel.
“Based on the infection tracing, it is not clear where and when the patient was infected, but given the incubation period, it is probable that the infection occurred either on the M/S Trollfjord or on the M/S Roald Amundsen,” the e-mail states.
The tourist member who is the subject of the e-mail took the Trollfjord to Tromsø and transferred to the Roald Amundsen, although the institute notes there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 among passengers and crew aboard the Trollfjord during the 17 days since.
This is a breaking story with updates in progress.