Penguins do not get Corona virus

How we managed to get my little sister back home in the middle of the Corona pandemic crisis

My little sister is 14.5 years younger than I am. Though she is 23 years old, for me she is always my little sister. In November 2019 she embarked a journey to South America with her boyfriend. Travelling from Argentina to Chile, Brazil, Galapagos Islands they were basically having the time of their lives with giant turtles, sharks and all the wonders of nature surrounding her.

My sister and her boyfriend had another dream they hoped to turn into a reality- to get to Antartica. So when they heard a boat was leaving Argentina and the ticket prices were cheaper than they thought, they flew back to Argentina to board the Ocean Atlantic on March 2nd. On this date there were no confirmed COVID-19 positive cases in Argentina (the first patient was actually discovered a day later). Latin America had a minimal exposure to the virus in the beginning of March and it still seemed far away.

The far ends of the earth. Photograph: Assaf Zaitlin

In the time that my sister and her boyfriend travelled to penguin land the world changed and the Corona virus reached South America as well. They were on a cruise ship with 190 travellers and 120 crew members who were not in the vicinity of any Corona positive patient for more than a month, but the situation became complicated. The cruise line decide to cut the trip shorter and they reached the shores of Argentina earlier than planned.

Only by that time Argentina had already had its share of Corona positive patients and refused disembarkment of the ship’s crew and passengers. They refused in 3 different harbours and eventually the country declined entry. This was of course quite a shock as the ship’s origin was Argentina.

Not one of the passengers or crew members of the ship showed any signs of the virus. They have not been in a country that had any verified Corona positive patients in the 14 days prior to onboarding the ship and were pretty much in contact just with each other and some penguins. Their temperature was taken and as precaution the passengers were also quarantined in their individual chambers and were not in contact with each other. All of that did not do much to persuade the Argentinian government and the ship had to continue in its journey with water and food becoming more scarce.

A penguin that is not tested positive for COVID-19. Photograph: Assaf Zaitlin

Hearing about all of this from afar (a different country, different time zone, different continent) we all felt helpless. We just wanted to get there and grab them somehow back home. We began to check different evacuation options but even a helicopter cannot get you off the boat if there is no country that is willing for you to land there. We contacted the foreign office, the Israeli ambassador in Argentina and kept checking the available flights back to Israel. At some point we were told that if the Argentinian government was presented with flight tickets back to Israel we can convince them to off-board the passengers so we actually booked flight tickets, but that did not help also.

At that point we were still keeping the story low key. We thought that since Argentina is starting to close its borders, it would be best not to have too much interest in trying to get these passengers back to shore. The story of the Diamond Princess was still fresh and we did not to associate the Corona infected cruise ship with this one that was clearly not infected. Unfortunately this strategy did not work and the ship had to sail off to Uruguay.

The status in Uruguay was not that much different than Argentina. They were hesitant to get the people off the ship and on shore. We contacted the Israeli ambassador in Uruguay and at this point food and water was delivered to the cruise ship. They were close enough to shore so there was cellular reception and finally we could text each other and even send some picture. At this point they were already quarantined in their rooms for a week with only a little time every day to go on deck for some fresh air.

It was time to change strategy. We reached out to everyone we know and don’t know asking for help. Managed to get to various news networks, airlines, rescue teams, Jewish communities in Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina and get their story out there. During that time the skies were beginning to close on us. Less and less flights were leaving south America to Israel and we began to worry that even if we get them off the boat, it would not be easy to get them back to Israel.

The Israeli ambassador was doing all that he could to help us but seeing that Uruguay was a sovereign country, there was little that could be done to push their decision. To add to the complexity, out of the 190 passengers on the ship about 140 were Australian and only 2 Israelis (my sister and her boyfriend). There were still groups of Israelis in various places around the globe and we wanted to make sure that these 2 who are special to us are not forgotten in the general craziness that was spreading around the world.

For a couple of nights in a row the Uruguay government said that only if they saw that the passengers have a way to return to their origin country they would let them disembark. So every night we searched and booked flight tickets in the hopes that this would help and in the morning told their story to every one who was willing to listen (radio, tv and any form of news).

On March 24th, after 3 weeks on the cruise ship, Uruguay agreed that the passengers disembark and they all headed straight to the airport. This is where they met with the Israeli ambassador who wanted to escort them to their first flight out of 3 leading them back home. We thought that this is almost over, only that they could not check-in to their final flight leading them to Israel and the border authority would not let them board the flight without that final check-in. Again we started looking for friends who can help us in that process only to find out that the flight was cancelled and the airline did not communicate this. The ambassador was the one who helped convince the border authority to let them board the flight while we found another flight to get them back home.

Finally on their way home

It took them 2 more days to get home. We still haven’t hugged them as they immediately entered voluntary quarantine for 14 days to make sure they do not have the virus, but they are finally on solid land and home.

I reached out to friends and acquaintances, friends of friends, old colleagues and complete strangers during that time asking for help, suggestions, ideas, connections. Managed to get to special evacuation teams, government officials, airline pilots, complete strangers who offered their homes and so many good people who were willing to reach out.

The flights from Uruguay stopped 2 days after they left the country. I am not sure how many more flights, if any, are currently operating from South America to Israel. Time was of the essence and it was the help of all these people that was crucial to get them back home safely. These are strange times, I don’t know how much longer they will last and I feel so much better now that my little sister is back home.

Penguins do not have Corona. Photograph: Assaf Zaitlin

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Sivan Yaron-Enden

Sivan is a product manager with a passion to understand user needs and find creative ways to answer them.