Shipping must utilise mainstream media to push governments to enact crew changes amid COVID-19 travel restrictions
Shipping has received a massive amount of attention from mainstream media in 2020 because of the global COVID-19 pandemic. News of outbreaks on cruise ships, vessels unable to find a port to disembark, and thousands of crew stranded on board have all been covered in major newspapers around the world.
The question is, has this increased coverage of issues facing shipping and seafarers helped to resolve them any quicker? The answer, so far, seems to be no. COVID-19 has certainly thrown light on many important, yet often underappreciated and unacknowledged, essential roles that people in various industries undertake, from care workers and delivery men to shop staff and seafarers.
These often low-paid staff, frequently viewed as low-skilled, are now deemed “key workers” by many governments. It has become glaringly obvious just how much we rely upon them. This does not, however, change the fact that these key workers have to risk their life by continuing to carry out their jobs, mixing with the public daily to ensure countries can keep functioning.
Unfortunately, as is often the case, seafarers have had a particularly raw deal in this scenario. The international nature of their job always adds a layer of complexity. For example, some governments have declared seafarers as key workers, making crew exempt from COVID-19 travel restrictions, meaning they have been able to be repatriated and return home to their families. Other countries have not done so, once more overlooking the vital work that seafarers do and creating an untenable situation for those left on board.
For crew who are unable to return home, their companies have issued extensions of their contracts. This has prompted concerns around crew safety, fatigue, and mental health.
Some have also been unable to access emergency medical healthcare ashore, even for non-COVID-19-related illness. Frustratingly, there have been multiple comments during industry discussions on contract extensions that “this is nothing new for seafarers” or that “seafarers are resilient and used to isolation”.
I would argue that these times are unprecedented and even the most resilient person would find this situation stressful and anxiety-provoking. There is a real difference between a routine and expected contract extension, and one where you do not know when you will be able to go home, one where you are constantly concerned for the health of your family or loved ones, or have even lost multiple loved ones to COVID-19 but are unable to be home to grieve.
In what has become a humanitarian crisis, at the time of writing, thousands of crew are still waiting to be repatriated, having worked beyond their contracts, and still expected to safely operate vessels and keep world trade moving. While governments have managed to find ways to repatriate their citizens from cruise ships, many seafarers are still waiting on board.
Fair enough, some shipping companies have been chartering flights and arranging for alternative ways to transport crew home where flights are not possible, via bus or taxis, if safe and able to limit the spread of COVID-19. However, this is not a long-term solution. Official systems must be put in place to ensure crew changes can run smoothly and safely in all countries. Many have worked on developing guidance to conduct safe crew changes, and many pleas have been issued to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and to governments worldwide to step in and ensure seafarers can travel home or to ships, uninhibited by COVID-19 restrictions.
The most recent plea, issued on 27 May, came from the IMO, International Civil Aviation Organization, and International Labour Organization, calling on governments to designate crew as key workers. Whether the plea falls on deaf ears remains to be seen. However, with the mainstream media’s eyes on shipping for a prolonged period of time, shipping must keep focussing on this issue to ensure the pressure is firmly on governments to take decisive action.