CAIRO – When Javier Parodi returned from a tour of Egypt’s famed ancient tombs in the southern city of Luxor last week, he was unnerved to see that the cruise ship that brought him there wasn’t where he left it.
The hulking MS Asara, carrying some 150 American, French and Indian passengers, was the lone ship docked on the opposite bank of the Nile, isolated from the line of tourist-packed vessels over concern that its passengers had been exposed to the new coronavirus.
Parodi, 35, then found himself confined for days on board the Asara, where 12 Egyptian crew members had just contracted the virus. The Nile cruiser has become the epicenter of the virus outbreak in Egypt’s crown jewel of tourism.
When passengers learned about the cases reported from their ship, Parodi said confusion quickly struck.
“Some of the worst thoughts go through your head,” said Parodi, who is traveling with his cousin and mother from Miami. Both of his family members are in their late 60s and have underlying respiratory conditions, which make them particularly vulnerable if infected by the virus. “Those crew members were the ones serving our food and cleaning our sheets.”
After local doctors took blood samples and mouth swabs from all on board, Parodi watched out of his cabin window as dozens of his fellow passengers, who had tested positive for the virus, were flown by military aircraft to a quarantine unit on Egypt’s north coast. None of them had shown symptoms.
“It was pure panic,” he said. “Like when you get in a car accident and can’t even write down the license plate number you’re so overwhelmed and nervous.”
Egypt’s sudden declaration of 45 new coronavirus cases from the single ship, a drastic spike from its previous countrywide record of three, sparked fears the disease was far more widely spread in the Arab world’s most populous country than the government had detected.
Late on Tuesday, authorities in Luxor said 49 tourists, including 38 from France, nine from the U.S., one from Malaysia and one from Canada, would be released from quarantine on the vessel after their tests proved negative. It wasn't immediately clear if Parodi and his relatives were among them.
The Asara first came under scrutiny when a Taiwanese-American woman who took the cruise in late February was confirmed with the virus after returning home. Since then, at least 21 Americans who returned to the U.S. after taking Nile cruises in late February or early March — apparently on the Asara — have been confirmed with the virus. Taiwan’s Center for Disease Control refuted the claim that the Taiwanese-American woman was the source of the virus on the ship, asserting she was infected by an Egyptian tour guide who was the first to show symptoms.
Parodi and his family flew to Egypt when it had the lowest rate in the region, joking they “would be better off over there than in the U.S.”
By Tuesday, the Health Ministry had reported 59 cases. A 60-year-old German tourist from another Nile cruise died late Sunday, marking the country's first and only fatality so far. In response, the government has put a temporary ban on large public gatherings but taken few other precautionary measures, unlike elsewhere in the Middle East, where schools have shut down. The Antiquities Ministry proudly announced that "thousands of tourists proceeded with their normal itineraries" to Luxor's ancient temples throughout the day.
What bothered Parodi most was the absence of clear information. First, a doctor told passengers they would fly home after their first tests came back negative. Now, they've been instructed to wait to be tested a second time, and have no sense of when that will be.
“No one seems to understand what’s going on,” he said, adding that one local taxi driver mistakenly walked on the boat and now is stranded in a two-week quarantine with the rest of them.
Within days, their Egyptian tour guide went from explaining mummification practices to quarantine rules: don’t leave your cabin unless you must, stand one meter apart, wear masks and wash your hands with extra soap.
Parodi and his family are whiling away their time by scrolling through their phones and watching the film “Fast and Furious," which is airing on repeat on one of the ship’s few available TV channels. The local crew, wearing masks and gloves, drops off meals in plastic bags three times a day.
“It’s really nothing like what you’re told Egypt is going to be like,” he said.