BELIZE CITY–The cruise ship Carnival Magic sailed into the Belize City Harbour yesterday morning, Thursday, carrying among its 3,762 passengers a U.S. lab supervisor who was in self-quarantine because she had handled specimens from the first U.S. Ebola fatality.
By the time authorities directed the ship to leave last night, Belize had entered the international media narrative on the Ebola virus.
Prime Minister Dean Barrow held a press conference this morning, Friday, to explain why Belize had turned down a request from as high up in the U.S. government as Secretary of State John Kerry, who had called Barrow, asking that the cruise ship passenger use the Philip Goldson International Airport, so that she could have been airlifted back to the U.S.
At the press briefing, which was held at the Best Western Belize Biltmore Plaza Hotel, Prime Minister Barrow was flanked by Minister of Immigration Godwin Hulse; CEO in the Office of the Prime Minister, Audrey Wallace; and CEO in the Ministry of Health, Dr. Peter Allen.
Wallace was the first to take to the podium, explaining that the U.S. Embassy in Belmopan had contacted her and requested that the passenger and her companion be allowed to disembark from the ship and taken to the Philip Goldson International Airport (PGIA), where an air ambulance would airlift them to the U.S.
The series of communications with the U.S. State Department reportedly went on for some time.
“Shortly after 4 p.m., the US Embassy called again to say that notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s decision, an evacuation flight had been arranged and the plane would be leaving the US for Belize. The [Belize] government’s position was reiterated and the embassy told that no transfer would be facilitated and the plane should not take off from the States, or if it had already taken off, it should turn back,” Wallace informed.
“About an hour later I received a call from the US Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of the Western Hemisphere — the assistant secretary informed me that the flight was on its way and would be landing in an hour. I reiterated that the Government was adamant that no evacuation from Belize through PGIA would be accommodated. I was thereafter informed that the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, would be seeking to speak to the Prime Minister,” explained Wallace.
The communication between Belize and the U.S. continued again, until finally, around 7:30 p.m., US Secretary of State Kerry made the request directly to Prime Minister Barrow.
Kerry attempted to persuade Barrow that there was really no threat from the passenger, but Barrow was adamant that Belize would not allow the two passengers through to the airport.
“I set out for him our own position. He insisted that there really was no threat and that I would not be putting Belizeans at any real risk. I stuck to my line, which was that in the circumstances, we couldn’t take any chance. He did ask whether I would consider, whether I would agree to explore the possibility of them sending a helicopter that would land on the deck of the cruise ship and then take the two passengers straight across to the PGIA.
“If it had been at all possible to do this thing in a way that could absolutely have eliminated any possibility of any risks to Belizeans – I would have been willing. The fact is, after the most anxious consideration, I concluded that the original position had to stand, because it could not, in the circumstances, be possible to do what the Americans were asking without exposing some Belizeans to some degree of risk,” Barrow said.
Barrow said that after speaking to the U.S. Secretary of State, he instructed Wallace to inform the U.S. Embassy that his decision not to allow the cruise ship passengers to travel through Belize stood.
“I instructed her to say to the US Embassy, it’s absolutely not on. My decision stands. It is final. Nobody need try to get in touch with me, because, not wanting to be rude, I cannot entertain any further appeals. This is it. Any possibility of any such transfer operation is off; the plane must go back and the ship must leave. If there had been any way to safely, and that’s what I need to stress, to safely accommodate the request of the US Government, I clearly would have been so disposed,” Barrow emphasized.