Governments urged to step up response to COVID-19 issues impacting seafarers globally

Crew members wearing protective masks and gloves. Credit: Wagner Meier/Getty Images

Major efforts have been made by the shipping industry to protect crew during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, but governments must now step up to resolve three pressing issues, according to an industry COVID-19 Seafarers Wellbeing Group.

On 20 May, Natalie Shaw, director of employment affairs, International Chamber of Shipping, told journalists that shipping industry bodies have worked tirelessly in the past 10 weeks to aid seafarers during the pandemic, including issuing of health guidelines and recommended crew change frameworks, seafarer support in response to the crisis, and joint industry collaborations to find solutions to problems faced by seafarers globally.

Shaw noted that the three main issues that remain are the renewal of visas and passports for seafarers; finding a common protocol for testing seafarers to expediate returning to work; and seafarer access to medical care in ports, especially for non-COVID-19 related injuries or illnesses.

“We have highlighted to all the international organisations what needs to be done, now governments need to act to get things moving forward,” said Shaw during a press briefing hosted by InterManager.

Kuba Szymanski, secretary general InterManager, stressed that governments can also help with the issue of crew changes, currently hampered by COVID-19 related port closures and restrictions. He added that this is one of the shipping industry’s main priorities. Though there are instances of crew changes being carried out safely, as published in a league table created by InterManger, Szymanski maintains that it is now the responsibility of governments to come to the aid of seafarers, “This is the root cause, if the governments start acting, then the airlines, charterers, and owners will come online, and so on,” he said.

Fabrizio Barcellona, head of actions International Transport Workers Federation, said he hoped the decision to extend seafarer contracts amid the pandemic, which reduced the need for crew changes, will have given governments time to find solutions to the issue.

The industry representatives concurred that the shipping industry was one of the best prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic, having already put protocols in place when dealing with the Ebola and SARs outbreaks. The ICS was able to produce the first medical guideline in response to COVID-19, published on 3 March, with support of the Wold Health Organisation, International Maritime Organisation, and International Labour Organisation (ILO).

“Compared to the aviation sector and other industry sectors, we’ve been very good at keeping going and making sure goods and services are maintained in this difficult time. We’ve shown our resilience,” commented Shaw.

The COVID-19 Seafarer Wellbeing Group, who took part in the webinar, 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.