Crews denied emergency medical treatment due to COVID-19 restrictions

Ships' hospital onboard. Credit: IHS Markit

Governments have been urged to respect seafarers’ right to access necessary emergency medical treatment ashore, which is a fundamental human right and cannot be set aside due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and the Joint Negotiating Group issued the plea in a joint statement on 27 April, after receiving multiple reports of seafarers with potentially life-threatening symptoms, unrelated to COVID-19, being refused emergency treatment by local port authorities.

In one incident, a seafarer suddenly developed an overwhelming, sharp pain in his left eye, which progressively got worse to the point that he was sensitive to light. The vessel consulted an ophthalmologist who recommended immediate medical evacuation for appropriate treatment. The local Indonesian port authorities refused disembarkation rights despite the efforts made by the port agent, the P&I Club and the embassy. After strong intervention by the ITF affiliate in Indonesia, Kesatuan Pelaut Indonesia (KPI), the port authorities in Morowali, Indonesia, finally agreed for the seafarer to disembark and receive medical care.

The Indonesian authorities also rejected multiple requests for an emergency medical evacuation of a seafarer who exhibited signs of a stroke on board a vessel off the island of Sumatra. The ITF and JNG statement said that a doctor from the ships’ international medical assistance company, Global Voyager Assistance, confirmed that the seafarer should immediately be sent to a hospital for treatment due to the seriousness of the case. The local port authorities refused the requests for medical evacuation due to COVID-19 restrictions. ITF affiliates, the Seafarers Union of Russia and the KPI intervened with the responsible authorities in both countries. The seafarer was disembarked and taken to a hospital almost four days after the initial request was made.

“We have found that in the cases brought to our attention in Indonesia, it was the local port authorities who are interpreting the regulations in their own way,” said Jacqueline Smith, maritime coordinator, ITF to SAS.

The ITF and JNG highlighted that, regardless of a country’s COVID-19 travel restrictions, the International Labour Organisation and Maritime Labour Convention (2006), stipulates seafarers have the right to adequate health protection and access to prompt and adequate medical care. This includes the right to be allowed to visit a qualified medical doctor or dentist without delay in ports of call.

Meanwhile, the International Maritime Organization has outlined in a list of recommendations that governments and national authorities should provide seafarers with access to emergency medical treatment ashore during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our advice to seafarers, who find themselves in this situation, would be to contact their union or the ITF as soon as possible, as in a medical emergency literally every minute counts,” said Smith. “In all cases the crew have followed the protocols onboard and the medical advice has been confirmed by the vessels’ medical provider, and so the seafarer needs to go to the hospital. It is a well-documented process and it can’t continue to be this hard to get seafarers off a vessel.”