ABC Illawarra: One year on from Ruby Princess incident, the Illawarra community reflects on the role it played

A New South Wales community is marking one year since the cruise ship at the centre of one of Australia’s largest coronavirus outbreaks docked in the region.

Key points:

  • The Ruby Princes docked at Port Kembla in the NSW Illawarra one year ago and a thousand crew were confined to their quarters for almost three weeks.  
  • The Carnival Cruise liner was linked to 28 coronavirus deaths and more than 700 infections after thousands of passengers were allowed to disembark in Sydney. 
  • A ciminal investigation into the cause of the outbreak continues while a special commission of inquiry found NSW Health made mistakes.

Twenty-eight people died, and more than 700 cases of the virus were linked to the Ruby Princess, after thousands of passengers were allowed to disembark the vessel in Sydney in March 2020.

The Carnival Cruises liner docked at Port Kembla around a fortnight later, where a 1,000 international crew were confined to their quarters on board for almost three weeks.

“We were all worried about what COVID was,” Wollongong’s deputy Lord Mayor Tania Brown said.

“We had just started lockdown, and yet we were hearing of these crew members who had been pushed out to sea, and they were ill.  

“They had COVID and they were not getting the care that they needed and suddenly they arrived on our doorstep.

“I just knew that our community would step up to do what we could to care for those people in need,” she said.

A generous community

Illawarra residents and the local Mission to Seafarers charity provided 1,200 care packages for the stranded crew members before hundreds of them were granted repatriation flights.

“People donated, they sent goods, hand-written notes, Easter eggs, little treats, games, things to help the crew through that quarantine period,” Cr Brown said.

“I called for Illawarra kindness at the time and I’m really proud of how our community stepped up when people needed help. We were there reaching out our hand,” she said.

Port Kembla Mission to Seafarers Chaplain and Wollongong Citizen of the Year, John Kewa, said he was overwhelmed by the community’s compassion.

“My concern was the dignity and wellbeing of the 1,200 staff and crew. We focussed all of our attention on the Ruby Princess, and I think the good rapport the mission had with the community played a big role,” he said.

“The humanity, the solidarity, the empathy and the understanding that the crew were just human beings that went to work to earn a living to feed their families and I think that was the message.”

“It’s a human story rather than just vessel, and we were reminded of our own mortality,” Mr Kewa said.

Multiple investigations

When the ship eventually sailed from Port Kembla on April 16, a giant sign emblazoned with the words “Thank you Illawarra” was draped from the vessel’s stern.

Crew members also wrote messages of thanks on their balconies and waved as hundreds of residents lined the shore to farewell the embattled liner.

New South Wales Police are continuing a criminal investigation into whether Carnival Cruises covered up the extent of illness on board the ship before passengers were allowed to disembark.

In August 2020, a Special Commission of Inquiry found New South Wales Health made “serious”, “inexcusable”, and “inexplicable” mistakes in its handling of the crisis.

Hundreds of passengers have since joined a national class action that remains before the courts.

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