“They gambled with our health”. That’s how Dr Laura Carija described Aurora Expedition's decision to allow 96 Australians to embark on an Antarctic cruise only days after the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. A group of 10 Denmark residents were aboard the Greg Mortimer when it became a flashpoint in the coronavirus crisis. At least nine of them have contracted the virus — and one 74-year-old Denmark woman remains in a Uruguayan intensive care unit. Michael Traill tells their story. REFUNDS REFUSED A day after the World Health Organisation declared coronavirus a global pandemic on March 11, with cruise liners suspending operations around the world, Denmark anaesthetist Dr Isavel Carija was trying to get out of a cruise to Antarctica. Dr Carija was pressing Aurora Expeditions on its decision to go ahead with a cruise setting off from the Argentinian port city of Ushuaia. Dr Carija, along with nine other Denmark residents, were due to set off on a 21-day cruise south to South Georgia, Falkland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula on board the Greg Mortimer. In a written response, Aurora Expeditions refused to refund the luxury voyage, telling the anaesthetist their “rigorous” COVID-19 policy and “extreme precautions” would protect passengers during the voyage. Dr Carija’s wife, Dr Laura Carija, would later describe the move as Aurora Expeditions playing “Russian roulette” with their health. Without a refund, the couple would have been left more than $50,000 out of pocket. “They wanted us on board. I’m pretty sure it was a decision based on economics rather than looking after us,” Dr Laura Carija said. “They gambled with our health and they lost the gamble big time.” As Aurora Expeditions allowed 217 passengers and crew to board the Greg Mortimer on March 15, Dr Laura Carija said other cruise liners operating out of South America’s Southern tip were calling their voyages off. “The cruise ships that were meant to leave Ushuaia the day beforehand were cancelled, passengers were sent home. We were the only people to leave at that time,” she said. “It was great when we were in Antarctica, because we had the place to ourselves, but there was a reason we had the place to ourselves. “We should have never been allowed on that ship.” THE VIRUS STRIKES Greg Mortimer passengers, 96 among them Australians, were able to enjoy six days of relative normality. A week after departing Ushuaia, while at sea on March 22, passengers and crew were told someone among them had developed a fever. Everyone was sent to the confines of their cabins with the ship turning north in effort to find a port that would allow them to dock. “That was quite stressful, because we were in our cabins, the future was really uncertain and we had no idea what was going to happen at that stage,” Dr Laura Carija said. “We also didn’t know where we were going. We had started for Ushuaia, but we discovered Argentina had closed its borders. We were told we were going to go to the Falklands. “As we got to the Falklands, we discovered we couldn’t get off in the Falklands either.” After five days in the dark, the Greg Mortimer was allowed to drop anchor off the Uruguayan capital of Montevideo. On April 4, six Uruguayan doctors entered the Greg Mortimer to test its occupants for COVID-19. That same day, Denmark’s Rose Paget was transferred to a private hospital in Montevideo, where she remains in intensive care. Denmark woman Madge Fleming said there was no indication at the time of just how bad Mrs Paget’s condition would get. She said she had spoken on the phone to Mrs Paget 10 minutes before she was taken from the ship. Three days later, the 74-year-old would require a ventilator as her condition deteriorated. Mrs Fleming’s husband, Jesz, was also transferred to the hospital. Fortunately for him, it was only a cautionary measure for low oxygen levels. It was not until shortly after Mr Fleming was removed from the ship that 128 out of 217 passengers and crew on board were told they had the virus. Nine of the Denmark passengers had contracted COVID-19. THANK YOU, URUGUAY Despite suffering an experience most people would find almost unimaginable, the Denmark contingent have been left with a warm lasting impression of the nation who gave them refuge. Dr Laura Carija said when the Australians were finally loaded on to buses for their mercy flight home, they were met by fanfare from Uruguayans lining the streets. “For part of the journey, there were all these multi-storey apartment buildings, all the Uruguayans were waving torches, waving banners, standing on the side of the road waving; it was amazing,” she said. “It was just very humbling how we were treated there.” Mr Fleming, who had to be taken to the airport by ambulance, described the scenes of people waving to them with flags as a celebration. “It wasn’t a celebration of, ‘Oh, they’re going’, it was a celebration of how wonderful it is that, ‘We could see you going back to your home country’,” he said. “It was something that was quite amazing. “When I got out of the ambulance, I saw the press were there ... I fell down in gratitude for them, kissed the ground to thank them.” Mr Fleming was particularly thankful to the six doctors who volunteered their time to test all of the ship’s occupants when the Greg Mortimer finally dropped anchor. “Even when I was taken taken to hospital, the way that they were looking after me — I didn’t feel like I was in isolation. I was in the hands of people who wanted to help me, who were JUloving and caring,” he said. IN LOCKDOWN One Denmark couple was not fortunate enough to make the mercy flight back to Melbourne on Sunday. As of yesterday, Rose Paget remained in a Montevideo intensive care unit on a ventilator. Her husband, Graham Paget, has stayed behind with her. Dr Carija said the group remained hopeful Mrs Paget would pull through and said they were grateful for the high level of care she was receiving from Uruguayan authorities. “Rose is stable. She’s still in ICU, she’s still on a ventilator, she’s had dialysis, so she’s sick,” Dr Carija. “She’s sick but she hasn’t gotten any worse over the last three days or so, so we remain hopeful she’ll get through this. “She’s getting really good care over there; they know what they’re doing by the sounds of it. It’s not a problem from that point of view.” For the other Denmark passengers, their future, too, remains unclear. While they have all effectively been in isolation since March 22, when they were sent to their cabins, it appears they will have to spend at least another three weeks in quarantine. West Australians who return home from quarantine in other Australian jurisdictions are required to meet a mandatory 14-day quarantine period. Premier Mark McGowan said it was a national issue to secure flights for Australians to their home States. Mr Fleming, however, can still find humour in lockdown in a Melbourne hotel. “We’re not quite certain exactly what’s going to happen when we get back to WA,” he said. “But if we have to go to Rottnest Island and they give us bicycles, we’d be ecstatic. “If you open my door here, poke your head out and look down the hallway, you’ll see a guard sitting at the end. If I ran out of my room, I don’t think I’d be hit by a taser — but you never know.” The Advertiser contacted Aurora Expeditions, but did not receive a response to specific questions. A statement posted on their website yesterday said they would continue to support passengers and their families in the weeks and months to come.