Local resident Jason Balgopal seeks help from Canadian government to get his parents and others off cruise ship MS Zaandam

Jason Balgopal's parents, Kevin and Jeanette, are unable to leave a cruise ship now off the coast of Florida. He has started a petition to help them and the other passengers get home safely.

By ALEXANDER SAUVE

For Kevin Balgopal, 80, and wife Jeanette, 78, what started off as an adventure of a lifetime has turned into a complete nightmare.

Wanting to travel south near Cape Horn at the southern tip of Chile, the Scarborough residents decided that a cruise was their best option. Both had travelled extensively and were looking forward to the trip. At the end of February they left Toronto to depart on Holland America’s MS Zaandam cruise ship with a passenger capacity of 1,432.

Although the COVID-19 virus was originally a concern in China and in Europe at this time, there were no warnings or travel advisory’s put into effect and travelling overseas wasn’t a concern. But by March 14, the virus had become a world health concern leaving the couple of 53 years not being able to dock at their next destination.

According to their son Jason Balgopal, a well-known area resident who was named Beach Citizen of the Year in 2017, his parents and everyone else on the ship are now experiencing a nightmare situation.

“We learned that just after they had left port in Punta Arenas (at the southern tip of Chile) on March 14, the Chilean government was going to close its borders. The ship, the MS Zaandam, immediately turned around and rushed back to the same port from where it had come from,” he said.

Unfortunately for the passengers on the Zaandam, they were left waiting on board for approximately two days while the Chilean government decided how to handle the virus and any incoming vessels looking to dock.

“After leaving them anchored in the harbour for two days, the Chilean government advised the ship that it could not dock. The ship was then forced to travel northwards to obtain fuel and supplies. Even at that time, my parents were not overly concerned; the ship had no illness on it,” Balgopal said.

With the initial confusion surrounding the virus, its origins, and how it’s spread from one person to another, there was initially a feeling that those on the ship might be protected since they were not in an area where they were being exposed to it.

“In fact, originally we thought they might be protected by being away from the virus on the high seas,” he said.

Unfortunately for the passengers and crew of the Zaandam, the COVID-19 virus was discovered on board after several of the passengers became ill. Four people died, and all passengers were quarantined to their rooms.

“All the passengers were assessed by medical personnel on board the MS Zaandam, and those who exhibited no symptoms were transferred to the MS Rotterdam.  Many of the people still on the MS Zaandam are healthy and not ill, but Holland America was very cautious of any risks,” said Balgopal.

As of yesterday, both ships had crossed through the Panama Canal and are presently off the coast of Florida. Unfortunately, Fort Lauderdale which also happens to be the main port for these ships is currently resisting any attempt for the ships to dock.

According to Balgopal, if the ships are allowed to dock in Fort Lauderdale, he is hopeful that the Canadian government will intervene and arrange for his parents and other Canadian passengers to be brought back home and put into quarantine.

He is very concerned, however, about what might happen next if his parents and the other passengers are not allowed to disembark from the ship.

“The ship, for the most part, is a sealed container. Very few of the passengers have a balcony or window that opens (my parents do not). The air is circulated within the ship and could possibly be a transmission mechanism for COVID-19 virus if it finds its way onto the ship. It is so important to get the passengers off the ship,” he said.

Balgopal has started an online petition to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to help get the passengers who are now on the two Holland America ships (Zaandam and Rotterdam) docked and home safely.

To sign the petition and for more information, please go to http://chng.it/dQw85wHvhS.


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