Problems Faced by Seafarers in the Wake of COVID-19

The following has been submitted to the World Maritime University (WMU) from an alumnus currently serving as Captain of a vessel. 

Every day, new socio-economic issues are being highlighted because of the pandemic. It’s no surprise that the restrictions placed to curb the spread of COVID-19 have also adversely affected maritime safety and shipping operations. Moreover, it also makes one take a closer look at the plight of seafarers.

In contrast to the common employee, the average seafarer does not have similar issues to address. To get a better understanding of what seafarers are going through during the pandemic, here is a glimpse into the personal experience of a commercial tanker ship captain that sheds light on the challenges seafarers are facing.

A Captain’s First-Hand Account of Seafarer Problems

I was well on my way from Port Arthur in the US to a port in Latin America when COVID-19 was classified as a global pandemic. We set sail in February 2020 and reached our destination by mid-March2020. During this time, the number of COVID-19 cases had not only doubled but the virus had already spread to different countries. This led to the introduction of travel restrictions and the introduction of problems that few could have foreseen. From my experience, this has been one of the toughest phases I have endured throughout my entire sailing tenure.

For starters, we entered that port State when there was a global lockdown. Moreover, we required medical assistance as soon as we reached the port. Unfortunately, the severe restrictions enforced and the overwhelming number of COVID-19 cases meant that medical attention was not available for us. Even when we got assistance from a company doctor, the medicines prescribed were not available onboard. Arranging for these medicines was an impossible task in the lockdown. At best, we were left to fend for ourselves, using the limited resources we had on board.

In the current climate, seafarers are playing a crucial role in supporting the global supply chain. Contingency plans are a necessity to isolate and treat suspected cases. Given the close quarters that seafarers live in, self-isolation is not a possibility. Ships are not equipped to offer the same level of medical service as hospitals. Not only is it challenging to get the affected crew members to hospitals but in some countries, the local population has already overwhelmed the available medical facilities.

I believe that there is a tangible need to create better contingency plans to provide quick medical assistance to the affected seafarers. This factor fed into our concerns, particularly when it came to the vetting inspection. There is a higher risk of COVID-19 transmission and few chances of self-isolation. While we did relay our concerns via a detailed email that emphasized the heightened risk, it had no effect.

To our surprise, the vetting inspection not only proceeded but was carried out during a time when the said port State had 20,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and 1,250 deaths. Not only did the inspector survey the ship, he did so without gloves or a face mask. We also found out that he had recently air travelled throughout the affected country. Our anxiety, worries and fears had intensified. It is also surprising to note that such a blatant breach of safety standards was made just so the SIRE reports could be done. The Oil Companies International Marine Forum (OCIMF) provides extensions of up to 18 months for these reports.

It was disheartening to note that during this time, the focus for seafaring companies was still stuck on profits, business continuity and the integrity of the supply chain mattered. The safety and health of crew members was definitely being pushed to the back. Otherwise, the necessity of a SIRE inspection cannot be justified at times of high risk.

Even after COVID-19 protocols were agreed upon, prior to the arrival of the vessel, the implementation was definitely lacking. This was evident in another country we visited when at least 40 visitors boarded the vessel. Social distancing was hardly maintained, with some even showing reluctance to co-operate with the screening process. Even though the accommodation area was prohibited for visitors, they kept entering it and jeopardizing the safety of the crew. Moreover, it has been nearly 4 months since shore leave came to a complete halt. No shore leave for such a long time is detrimental to the wellbeing and health of seafarers.

It is odd that while ports are refusing to welcome seafarers and denying them shore leave, visitors are allowed to board the same vessels without precautions or standard operating procedures (SOPs) to prevent COVID-19 infections. This aspect reveals a lack of concern. Seafarers face a much higher risk from COVID-19 infections since access to medical facilities is extremely limited to them. Allowing at-risk visitors to board vessels without following COVID-19 SOP’s, is dangerous. Seafarers should be admitted into ports for much need shore leave or for medical support following COVID-19 SOPs.

Furthermore, the global lockdown has restricted procurement of necessary spares and equipment that are mandatory for the safe operation of a vessel. A major reason is that spares are sourced from different parts of the world. The lack of spares and safety equipment is a major risk factor that jeopardizes the safety of crew members and the property on board the vessel.

At the crux of the matter is the repatriation of ship crews which has become a major hindrance for international trade. Seafarers cannot disembark from their ships and fly back home, even after completion of their contracts. As of now, around 300,000 shipping crew and personnel are stranded on-board with some having remained on ships for nearly 15 months. This is a problem that poses unparalleled risks to supply chain and logistics worldwide.

Given the travel restrictions imposed inMarch, crew members who had completed their contracts, were barred from going back home. Since crew change issues have not been addressed satisfactorily, no one knows when they will be allowed to disembark. Many crew members have perceived this action to mean that their contributions, sacrifices and dedication have gone unnoticed. Many believe that not enough is done to address their predicament. As a result, crew members are worried about their families and continue to face higher levels of stress and fatigue.

For our crew, it was only at the end of May, upon arriving in India, that crew members who completed their contracts were allowed to disembark. The relief of the crew was palpable as Indian nationals could sign off of at Indian ports.

While some companies are making extra effort to arrange crew changes, most of the others are not. While it is an expensive undertaking, some companies are pooling in resources with other companies to charter flights or arranging it themselves. A few companies are also viewing other options such as diversion of ships to carry out crew changes. Although such steps are welcoming, they do not provide a permanent solution to the crew change issues the industry is facing at this moment.


The Root of The Problem

A reason why these issues have not been addressed is that the shipping industry has not campaigned effectively for the rights of seafarers to the authorities. The industry needs to show more empathy for distressed seafarers and come to their rescue. Otherwise, the industry will face severe losses particularly when a majority of the workforce is fatigued, stressed and discontent.

Another reason why these issues are being ignored is the failure of governments to treat seafarers as “Key Workers” as called for by the IMO Secretary-General. This has already given rise to significant challenges. This lacklustre approach directly correlates to the sharp rise in suicides, higher rates of depression, fatigue and stress in the workforce. This makes it necessary to implement a comprehensive security protocol for these “Key Workers”. Seafarers have a right to governmental aid and relief since maritime shipping accounts for 80% of global trade.

Seafarers also feel abandoned and have even come to view ships as floating prisons in every sense. On the other hand, the very same travel restrictions have triggered a surge in unemployment rates amongst seafarers that are anxiously waiting to go onboard. Seafarers are finding it difficult to obtain visas for crew rotation. The suspension of commercial flights is another serious barrier to repatriation.

As is evident, it is important for seafarers to be considered as “Key Workers” to maintain healthy functioning of the industry. Facilitating crew changes and taking seafarers back home can be a lifesaver for the mental and emotional wellbeing of the crew.

This is necessary because seafarers play a central role in the global economy. Unfortunately, the global response towards this industry has been slow, cold and lethargic at best. More active measures need to be implemented to minimize the risks to the global supply chain and to grant relief to the crews.

The plight of seafarers and the subsequent safety issues for maritime trade must be higher on the agenda not only for their wellbeing but also to restore order and ensure the supply of necessities.

Note: This account has been published on 25 June 2020, the 10th anniversary of Day of the Seafarer. To learn more about this year's theme, "Seafarers are Key Workers," and to view the WMU President's Day of the Seafarer video message, click here.

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