Transport Minister Renward Wells.
By RASHAD ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
THE Bahamas government signalled yesterday that it will not accept people infected with COVID-19 from ships stranded in Bahamian waters despite a US Coast Guard bulletin that foreign-flagged vessels should seek help from countries in which they are registered.
In a carefully worded statement, Transport Minister Renward Wells said The Bahamas would help people sheltering-in-place aboard cruise ships in its waters.
However, his statement did not express outright refusal to disembark sick passengers in this country, stopping well short of the language he used when a Fred Olsen cruise ship, with infected people on board, came this way last month.
On Wednesday, Rear Admiral EC Jones, commander of the Seventh Coast of the US Coast Guard, singled out The Bahamas as he urged foreign-flagged ships lingering beyond US territorial seas to seek flag state support because of the limited hospital capacity of US medical facilities. The rules apply to vessels carrying more than 50 people.
Mr Wells said in a statement: “The Bahamas has taken note of the United States Coast Guard Marine Safety Information Bulletin…giving guidance to foreign passenger vessels located in the Seventh District Area of Responsibility. The bulletin makes reference to Bahamas-registered vessels in the context of limited medical facilities ashore in Miami and vicinity.
“We in The Bahamas have had a long standing and ongoing relationship with the US Coast Guard based on mutual interest and respect. The Bahamas is one of the first countries to have cooperated closely with the Coast Guard in combating human trafficking, narcotic trafficking and other illicit activities.”
Nonetheless, Mr Wells noted each party faces a unique challenge caused by the global pandemic and are “first and foremost” responsible for protecting their respective populations while doing its best to support people sheltering-in-place on board ships.
“We continue to work closely with the cruise industry,” he said, noting this country’s flag represents more ships than any other registry in the world.
“Our maritime authority works with our cruise ship owners in relation to the safe operation of these ships and the health and well-being of their passengers and seafarers,” he said. “Our nation has been responsive in enabling safe and responsibility solutions – within parametres - for cruise ships in the course of this pandemic.
“The cruise industry is facing an unprecedented crisis and we in The Bahamas, facing the same global crisis, are doing what we can to provide support. We have made intergovernmental contact where we could be helpful. We have devised safe methods of resupply of our flag cruise vessels that were running critically low on provisions, medical supplies and medical personnel. We have provided places of shelter, under carefully controlled conditions, for a number of vessels seeking to shelter in our waters. We have also given access to these sheltering vessels irrespective of country of registry, in the process accommodating ships of a number of flags in addition to our own.”
However, Mr Wells said, officials are aware that the country is trying to cope with the adversity Hurricane Dorian caused.
“We are indeed grateful for the tremendous generosity and kind assistance rendered by the United States during that catastrophic and challenging period,” he said. “However, we recognise that as a result of Hurricane Dorian, The Bahamas is still functioning with limited capacity and capabilities, socially, economically and financially.
“What we have not been able to do is take people from the ships ashore in our population centres. We are a small island developing state with a national population in the three hundred thousands. We are proud of the medical care that we afford our people, but it is scaled to our population size. Our system is not designed to deal with a massive influx of new COVID-19 patients from outside the country.”
In mid-March, the Braemar, which was turned away from The Bahamas and several Caribbean ports after passengers fell ill with COVID-19, was scheduled to dock in Cuba.
The island nation agreed to help transfer those aboard to planes bound for the United Kingdom, AP reported.
The Cuban government said it had decided to allow the Braemar to dock in the port of Mariel, about 35 miles (56 kilometres) west of the capital, “due to the urgency of the situation and the risk to the lives of sick people,” AP reported. Olsen Cruises said that the ship had 22 passengers and 21 crew members in isolation after displaying flu-like symptoms and five aboard who tested positive for the new coronavirus at the time.