HAL is working to find medical help and safe passage home for the 1,243 passengers and 1,247 crew stranded at sea on Zaandam and Rotterdam.
They are among the 9,000-plus passengers still remaining on about a dozen other cruise ships worldwide.
'Unfortunate souls unwittingly caught up'
'These are unfortunate souls unwittingly caught up in the fast-changing health, policy and border restrictions that have rapidly swept the globe,' Ashford said in an opinion piece published in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and as a HAL blog post.
He's concerned with how those needing intensive medical treatment will receive it with limited shipboard medical staff, facilities and supplies. As well, nations are reluctant to share provisions or afraid to carry critical supplies to the ships. 'What happens when our supplies run out?' Ashford said. 'Can guests and crew without symptoms get home with limited flights and closed borders?
'Even our guests are questioning, “My president or prime minister told me to get home. I’m a citizen. How can my government turn me away?”'
Ashford acknowledged nations are 'justifiably focused on the COVID-19 crisis unfolding before them. But they’ve turned their backs on thousands of people left floating at sea. Are these reactions based on facts from experts like the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or fueled by irrational fear? What happened to compassion and help thy neighbor?' he added.
Aboard Zaandam, four people have died, and Ashford fears others may be at risk. As of Monday, 76 passengers and 117 crew reported influenza-like illness, including eight people tested positive for COVID-19. 'We have seen a notable and steady decline in cases of the last 48 hours, which shows the immediate actions we took have helped contain spread,' Ashford added.
He expressed appreciation to the Panamanian government for allowing Zaandam and Rotterdam to move through the Panama Canal, on humanitarian grounds.
The ships still face a multi-day journey before they can dock and disembark. 'And we need confirmation from a port that is willing to extend the same compassion and grace that Panama did, and allow us to come in so our guests can go straight to the airport for flights home,' the HAL chief said.
'COVID-19 response a test of our humanity'
'It’s easy to condemn those who are unhelpful and unwelcoming during times of need. But what if instead we focus on the type of society we strive to be, where nations share a collective responsibility to help others in peril? Because these travelers could have been any one of us or our families — caught up by a fast-changing scenario nobody foresaw,' Ashford continued.
'The COVID-19 situation is one of the most urgent tests of our common humanity. To slam the door in the face of these people betrays our deepest human values.
Given the opportunity, I am hopeful that all of us will follow the lead of our Panamanian friends and help our neighbors.'