CARTAGENA, Colombia – As if it had raised the yellow plague flag, the Colombian-registered cargo vessel Susurro (Whisper) was barred from dropping anchor off the island of Tierra Bomba, in Cartagena Bay near the city of Cartagena, due to fears among local residents that they could become infected with COVID-19.
Seven living crewmembers were on board, six of them sick almost certainly with the coronavirus, along with the body of one who had already died – also presumably of COVID-19 – when the vessel arrived at Cartagena on May 18 from the San Andres y Providencia archipelago about 775 kilometers (482 miles) northwest of mainland Colombia.
The ship remains under quarantine in the Bahia de las Animas just off Cartagena’s historic city center, where it was finally allowed to drop anchor after being denied anchorage at two other sites.
The ship’s situation recalls that of protagonists Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza in Colombian Nobel Prizewinner Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel “Love in the Time of Cholera.”
In the novel, the couple sailed on the Magdalena River under a fake yellow disease flag and some of the towns fired “affectionate” cannon shots when they passed by to scare away the cholera and the vessels of other shipping companies whose paths they crossed would send them messages of condolence, thinking that the often fatal disease was on board their ship.
In this episode, the product of Garcia Marquez’s fertile imagination, Capt. Diego Samaritano covers up Florentino’s idea of flying the plague flag by declaring his vessel to be under quarantine and sailing under emergency protocols bowing to one of Fermina’s whims.
But the story of the Susurro is less romantic and more tragic than in the Colombian author’s 1985 novel.
This is because one of the crewmembers died and six of the surviving seven are presently infected with the virus. The crew has been on board for 30 days – their world limited to the 32 meters (105 feet) from stem to stern while they have been battling the disease and keeping their fingers crossed that, at some point, they can once again step onto dry land.
The Susurro set sail from Cartagena at noon on April 25, when Colombia was already under lockdown, loaded with provisions to supply the Caribbean islands of San Andres and Providencia.
It arrived at the first destination on April 27, a little after 5:00 pm without any noteworthy occurrence and complying with all the health safety protocols.
On the night of April 28, the ship set sail for Providencia, where it remained for five days and then returned to San Andres on May 4 and then began its voyage back to Cartagena.
Up to that point, everything had gone normally. Just another of the hundreds of voyages that the old cargo vessel had made between the Colombian mainland and the archipelago.
However, about halfway through the homeward voyage, the Susurro informed the San Andres port authorities that it was returning to the island because one of its crewmembers had fallen ill.
On the island, which has only a shaky and rudimentary health infrastructure, certain voices began raising the possibility that the crewman might be suffering from COVID-19, but the authorities received the boat and instructed it to drop anchor in the inner bay, a spot known as Los Almendros.
When the vessel arrived at San Andres, officials from the Health Secretariat learned that the crewman had died and it was immediately ordered that the body remain on board the Susurro.
San Andres health secretary Julian Davis told EFE that “the real cause of death of this 58-year-old sailor is under investigation because the body could not be tested for COVID-19 since more than six hours has passed and after that time the test doesn’t work.”
Davis said that, besides the cause of death, authorities are investigating “why the captain never reported that the man had died; why, if it’s true that they had sailed half the voyage, they didn’t continue the trip to Cartagena, where the sick man could have been given greater medical attention.”
The official said that nephews of the deceased man living on the island said that the victim had said that “he was sick from before (the ship set sail), that he had a fever, he had flu-like symptoms and they had prescribed some acetaminophen tablets and some vitamins for him.”
San Andres authorities attribute the recent increase in coronavirus cases in the archipelago to the Susurro’s arrival with a dead man on board, given the fact that the ship had come from Cartagena, one of the Colombian cities hardest hit by the coronavirus and the sometimes deadly COVID-19 pneumonia it causes with 1,878 cases and 96 deaths, at latest count.
Davis said that up until the vessel’s arrival in San Andres, the island had experienced only “six virus cases, five of them had already recovered and one was active, and in Providencia there hadn’t been any.”
“After the arrival of the Susurro, 15 more cases appeared, of which 13 are linked to the ship: the six crewmembers, three members of the Colombian Navy who were in contact with the boat, two port … doctors, a nurse in Providencia who was the one who made the screening on board the ship and the person responsible for receiving the cargo in Providencia,” Davis said.
All those infected on the islands are said to be recovering, just like the six crewmembers of the Susurro, who are waiting to be given a clean bill of health so that Cartagena authorities will permit them to disembark and return to their families.