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An Inside Look at the COVID-19 Outbreak Aboard the Zaandam

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Published Jul 1, 2022 6:24 PM by The Maritime Executive

"Cabin Fever: The Harrowing Journey of a Cruise Ship at the Dawn of a Pandemic" gives the public a new inside view of the COVID outbreak aboard the Zaandam in the early days of the pandemic. Multiple countries refused the ship permission to berth, leaving the passengers stuck on board as the infection spread. 

Journalists Michael Smith and Jonathan Franklin detail the Zaandam's difficult voyage, which began just days before the world shut down in March 2020.

When the ship departed on March 7, 2020 from Buenos Aires, Argentina, she was carrying 1,200 passengers - the majority of whom were Americans, Europeans and South Americans - and a crew of 600. Most of the passengers were over the age of 65.

The ship made stops in Montevideo, Uruguay, and the Falkland Islands, and planned to conclude her voyage in San Antonio, Chile on March 21. But the cruise came to an end when South American governments began shutting the ship out due to coronavirus concerns. On March 22, the Zaandam's captain ordered passengers to stay in their cabins after dozens of people aboard began experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.

After a dayslong ordeal, the Zaandam was eventually allowed to pass through the Panama Canal and dock in Fort Lauderdale (after facing local opposition). A total of four passengers died during the cruise, although it was not confirmed whether or not each death occurred due to the virus.

When the ship departed, there was concern about the virus, which had already killed and sickened passengers on other cruise ships. But that was oceans away, and escaping to sea at the ends of the earth for a few weeks seemed like it might be a good option. The cruise line had said the voyage that would take passengers on a three week cruise around the South American coastline would carry on as scheduled.

According to the authors, the operator maintained the cruise would be safe and suggested that Zaandam was ‘immune’ to the threat of COVID-19 - despite the fact that the company had been forced to deal with three other major outbreaks on its other vessels.

The narrative follows a retired American school superintendent on a dream vacation with his wife and an Argentine psychologist taking this trip to celebrate her sixty-fourth birthday with her husband. For the four, and everyone else, what was supposed to be a fun-filled voyage on a luxury cruise quickly transformed into something else.