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Covid-19 drama on the high seas as Oceana fishing vessel crew members test positive for coronavirus

The Desert Diamond on a previous visit to Cape Town harbour. Supplied image.

The Desert Diamond on a previous visit to Cape Town harbour. Supplied image.

Published Jul 3, 2021


Johannesburg - It’s been a week of high drama for about 100 crew members on board the Desert Diamond fishing vessel after seven of their colleagues tested positive for Covid-19, including the cook.

The drama started on June 25 when a Russian crew member tested positive and four days later, another three members were struck down as well.

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The vessel, which belongs to the Oceana group, had been fishing in international waters between Gqeberha and St Francis but despite the seven positive cases, crew members claim they had to continue working.

The Saturday Star was inundated with messages from crew and concerned family members this past week highlighting concerns for their safety and what they say is Oceana’s lax approach to the situation on board the vessel.

Crew members claim they wrote a letter (in possession of the Saturday Star) to Oceana management on June 29 asking for them to be offloaded and for the vessel to be cleaned thoroughly. They claim their pleas fell on deaf ears and that the captain of the Desert Diamond refused to share their letter with management at Oceana.

“We have all been in contact with the people who tested positive, especially the cook,” said a crew member who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Crew members also claim that a National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) vessel sailed out to collect a Russian and South African crew member who had tested positive. Attempts by this newspaper to confirm this with the South African Ports Authority went unanswered.

By Friday, the vessel, with 97 crew members on board, made its way to Cape Town to offload and place in quarantine “some” of the crew while others remained on board and continued working.

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The Food and Allied Workers Union, in a letter to Oceana, expressed “serious concern and dissatisfaction” regarding workers at sea who have been quarantined on board the Desert Diamond.

Fawu spokesperson, Zolani Mbanjwa said their concerns also went unanswered.

“When we wrote to management of Desert Diamond on June 5, we did so in the interest of our members because we were unclear about Oceana Group Covid-19 protocol. And today, we find ourselves even more confused after three employees of Desert Diamond contracted the virus and operations simply continue seemingly unaffected by the requirement to isolate and return to port for sanitisation,” he said.

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Mbanjwa went on to say: “It must be noted that quarantine is a restriction on the movement of people, which is intended to prevent the spread of disease. This is not quarantine and we therefore respectfully request that you urgently release these employees to go home up until you get a proper quarantine in place where there is no movement of contractors from outside”.

Fawu said it believes that the current Covid-19 protocols in place on board the vessel is inadequate and called upon the leadership of the Oceana Group to immediately ensure that the infected workers are discharged from the vessel and placed in quarantine and that the Desert Diamond is returned to port and temporarily shut down for sanitisation until it’s declared safe.

Oceana Group executive: Corporate Affairs, Zodwa Velleman said the company “ensures that stringent health and safety remain in place. The Covid-19 protocols are well established as per international guidelines subscribed to and supported by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), the World Health Organisation (WHO), and regulatory authorities”.

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Despite the company saying it has a 14-day on board protocol in place, crew said the infected members were whisked off while they were forced to remain on board.

“The Group has pro-actively managed the three positive cases reported aboard the Desert Diamond. The asymptomatic crew members who have tested positive have been medically evacuated and are in quarantine on-shore,” said Velleman.

Oceana did not respond to questions about the NSRI’s involvement and when, where and by whom the vessel was cleaned, as it claimed.

Velleman said all crew members on board the vessel were tested on June 28 and 29 and all tested negative. The Saturday Star has since learnt that another crew member tested positive.

This is also the same vessel that was stuck in international waters just outside Cape Town when the pandemic first struck in 2020. Back then, South African crew members claimed their international colleagues were given preferential treatment. Oceana denied that claim.

The South African Maritime Safety Authority’s (Samsa) Tebogo Ramatjie said: “Samsa is aware of the situation on board the Desert Diamond and is in constant communication with the owners and other affected parties. Arrangements are being made to allow the vessel to come into the port in Cape Town taking into consideration appropriate Covid-19 protocols.”

Samsa also could not confirm if the company broke any rules by allowing the crew to remain on the boat.

The Saturday Star

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