COVID-19: Industry figures call for seafarer access to emergency medical assistance ashore

Seafarers need access to medical assistance during COVID-19. Credit: Getty Images

A COVID-19 Seafarer’s Wellbeing Group of 10 major maritime shipping organisations is working to ensure that crew can access medical care ashore, despite various country’s lockdown restrictions during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak.

“This is the first time, for many doctors, that our medical activities have been limited by the authorities, we were not allowed to see patients or seafarers in many ports,” said Robert Verbist, president, International Maritime Health Association at a webinar hosted by InterManger on 20 May.

Fabrizio Barcellona, head of actions, International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), noted that many seafarers have reached out to ITF stating they couldn’t access medical facilities for non COVID-19 issues or illnesses. “It’s only with the prompt action taken on behalf of seafarer welfare organisations and regulatory agencies that lives were saved by receiving much needed medical attention.”

The ITF previously released a statement, on 27 April, detailing several incidents where crew members were refused disembarkation rights and were stuck onboard for several days despite needing urgent care in port.

Natalie Shaw, director of employment affairs International Chamber of Shipping, concurred that this is a global issue seafarers face and though there have been several successful cases of disembarking crew with non COVID-19 related medical problems, industry bodies are more reactive rather than proactive when facing this challenge.

Shaw called upon governments to “act now” in response to this issue, and set a standard so that ports and local authorities cannot refuse seafarer access to medical assistance. ICS is drawing on experience from it’s previous involvement with a group of industry bodies in response to Typhoon Haiyan, in supporting seafarers in logistical challenges.

Ironically, Verbist pointed out the risk of infection and spread of disease during the COVID-19 pandemic is higher from land to ship than from ship to land risk as with previous medical crises. Therefore, it is less likely that crew, who may not have been ashore for most of the global pandemic, to spread the disease when at ports seeking medical care.

Verbist said work is ongoing to protect crew from contracting the disease, stating, “We should see a ship as a household and make sure there is no introduction of COVID-19 onboard from the land side to the ship.”

The maritime wellbeing group, made up of InterManager, ICS, ITF, IMHA, ISWAN, ICMA, UK Chamber of Shipping, ECSA, MNWB, Nautilus International, is working with ILO, IMO, UN, EU to tackle key welfare issues impacting crew during the COVID-19 crisis, including crew changes and repatriation.