NGO Doctor: Rescuing Migrants More Important Than Coronavirus Worries

In this photo taken on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019, The Alan Kurdi rescue ship, foreground, approaches a dinghy boat full of migrants, top right, as a Libya-flagged speedboat, top left, sails around, off the coast of Libya. A humanitarian aid group said gunmen on Libya-flagged speedboats threatened the crew of …
Sea-Eye via AP

A doctor working onboard a migrant transport NGO ship has claimed that picking up migrants in the Mediterranean matters more than worries over the Wuhan coronavirus.

Italian doctor Caterina Ciufegni, who works for the German migrant transport NGO Sea-Eye, played down coronavirus infection concerns. She said: “Facing people who run away from torture, coronavirus takes second place. I think we all accepted the risk.”

The 35-year-old spoke to Italian newspaper La Repubblica and admitted that the crew of the vessel Alan Kurdi did not wear protective masks when among each other, claiming it would be impossible to do so.

“Alan Kurdi is small; many of us share the same cabin. When we are with migrants, however, we wear masks and gloves. Last night, the Italian Coast Guard supplied us with personal protective equipment, medicines, and food,” she said.

According to Ciufegni, none of the 149 migrants on board the vessel who had been picked up off the North African coast showed signs or symptoms of the Chinese virus. The doctor confirmed that more than half come from Bangladesh, and the rest are from Morocco, Algeria, Chad, Sudan, Ghana, and Syria.

“Apart from ailments such as headaches, seasickness, pain in the back — very common to those who experience the crossing — they have no COVID-19 symptoms: nobody has a fever, cough, or breathing difficulties, despite being exposed to the wind on the aft deck,” she said.

The Italian government has, however, refused to allow the ship to dock and it remains off the coast of Sicily. The crew and migrants are to be transferred to another vessel for quarantining.

Dr Ciufegni also noted the migrants were well-aware of the coronavirus outbreak in Italy, saying: “When we recovered them, they immediately asked us about COVID-19. They are people who run away from prisons; the virus certainly does not stop them.”

Last week, Italy announced it would be closing all ports to migrant transport NGOs due to coronavirus. Most NGOs have kept their vessels in port after the outbreak with Sea-Eye being one of the only ships still operating during the pandemic.

Follow Chris Tomlinson on Twitter at @TomlinsonCJ or email at ctomlinson(at)


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