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The Big Take

Hell Is a Cruise Ship at the Beginning of the Pandemic

The new book Cabin Fever describes the panic and despair aboard Holland America’s MS Zaandam as Covid ripped through passengers and crew.

The MS Zaandam sits in Panama Bay, awaiting permission to move through the Panama Canal.

The MS Zaandam sits in Panama Bay, awaiting permission to move through the Panama Canal.

Photographer: Erick Marciscano/Reuters

At 5 a.m., George Covrig walked into the packed kitchen of the cruise ship MS Zaandam and asked in a booming voice, “What do you need?”

It was March 27, 2020, the dawn of the pandemic, and the Zaandam had been at sea off South America for almost three weeks as country after country slammed shut its ports. Covid-19 was tearing through the Zaandam, and Covrig was one of a dozen crew members from the MS Rotterdam, a sister ship in the Holland America Line fleet, who’d come aboard to help. As the volunteers boarded the Zaandam, hundreds of passengers not showing signs of illness were being transferred to the Rotterdam. Both ships now sat at the entrance to the Panama Canal, while Holland America tried to persuade the Panamanian authorities to let them pass through on the way to Florida.