Long read: Crew wellbeing during COVID-19

COVID-19 travel restrictions have left thousands of seafarers trapped on board ships and unable to disembark and return home at the end of their contracts. Is this a dangerous tipping point for a profession that already suffers from high levels of anxiety and depression?

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

Countries around the world are closing borders to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), which has left thousands of seafarers being forced to stay on board and continue to work, despite having completed their allotted contracts.

Unable to return to families or to recuperate after months spent at sea, they are instead having to sign new contracts that extend their service for a month or perhaps even longer, depending on how the pandemic progresses.

The situation has serious implications for crew mental health and wellbeing, especially in a profession that already suffers from high levels of depression and anxiety. Seafarers worked intensive hours and they faced isolation, fatigue, and prolonged periods away from home. Some 20% have contemplated suicide or self-harm, according to a recent Yale University study.

Frank Coles, CEO of maritime crewing company Wallem Group, told Safety at Sea, “The authorities need to understand the extent to which this is a problem. This isn’t just a case of a few people who want to go home, it is a call to prevent a mental health disaster and a potential safety disaster. The extra stress of having to stay on board longer and the worry about not seeing loved ones could lead us to a place where crew are more likely to make more mistakes, you could have a major incident, or an increase in incidents.”

Coles was recently contacted by a ship’s master keen to express the severity of the situation. In a message the man said, “Me and other crew members due for sign off are in a state of mental turmoil due to the indefinite delay in our relief on account of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Everyone is eagerly looking for sign off at the earliest, even if we are required to divert the ship and we are not willing to sign any extension of contract. I am personally very much disturbed at not being able to support my family during this hour of need.”

Some 15% of Wallem crew are currently over their contract period (at the time of writing), a figure that, according to the company’s analysis, will rise to 40% by the end of May if no reliefs are permitted. Extrapolate that to the global fleet and some 400,000+ seafarers could be stuck on board and in a more vulnerable mental state.

Efforts are under way to try to resolve the crisis. Maritime organisations, including the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), and Nautilus International, have ramped up pressure on governments around the world to classify seafarers as ‘key workers’, given they are vital to supply chains and the delivery of critical food and medicine, and therefore should be exempt from pandemic-related travel restrictions.

So far, only the United Kingdom has agreed to the measure, although the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore has said that crew changes may be allowed under certain circumstances, such as if no further extension of contract on board was offered or if crew members were found to be medically unfit to perform tasks.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has urged governments and employers to respect international labour standards for seafarers, saying “Even in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, seafarers shall be granted shore leave to benefit their health and wellbeing, and consistent with the operational requirements of their positions.”

The International Maritime Organization’s Maritime Labour Convention, 2006 (MLC, 2006) gives seafarers the legal right to return home at the end of their contract. However, with countries, such as India and the Philippines, now locking down, it might be in the seafarers’ best interest to remain on board and extend their contracts due to difficulties with onward travel and securing a flight if they were to disembark.

“Crew can’t be forced to sign a new contract, but the problem is if they don’t, it is difficult for them to get home and the shipowner has to get them off the ship,” Coles commented.

Support for crew

There are many organisations that offer advice to crew members who are unable to disembark and unsure of their rights, or struggling with stress or mental health issues during this time.

Worker unions, such as Nautilus International or the ITF, could provide practical and legal advice to members. The SeafarerHelp hotline, run by the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN), is available 24/7 and has received three times the number of calls in recent weeks, mainly from seafarers concerned about the COVID-19 pandemic and repatriation.

“We are expecting more calls related to mental health over the coming weeks,” said Roger Harris, executive director of ISWAN. “As the crisis develops, seafarers are concerned about their welfare and health, then there is the ‘double impact’ of worry about families back home as the pandemic takes hold and needing to ensure they are safe and well.”

Where possible and with personal protective equipment, the Mission to Seafarer chaplains are still bringing supplies to crew. Credit: Mission to Seafarers

According to ISWAN, extended contracts should be paid and include appropriate safeguards, including the signed consent of the seafarer and guarantees that accrued annual leave and the right to repatriation will not be lost. Crew could also contact the flag state to check if a shipowner’s extended contract was permitted without breaching the MLC, 2006 obligations.

Another organisation scaling up to meet the challenges of the outbreak is The Seafarers Hospital Society (SHS). It has teamed up with the free and confidential online mental health service Big White Wall to offer support services to all working and retired seafarers and their families during the pandemic.

The 24/7 service is anonymous and includes access to trained counsellors, a support network, self-help materials, and one-to-one therapy.

ISWAN has also released a video aimed at seafarers that provided guidance and information on managing mental health during the outbreak. “Tips include talking to fellow crew members, keeping in regular contact with families back home, and keeping physically active,” said Harris. “It’s important to not keep concerns to themselves and to look out for other crew members.”

Poor connectivity at sea has been linked to crew loneliness and some companies or internet providers are providing extra data or calls at a free or reduced rate. Some shipping companies, including Wallem, are providing crew with additional calling cards and access to the internet.

For many crew, regular spiritual support is a vital resource, yet many welfare centres around the world have been forced to close due to national restrictions over COVID-19 outbreaks. As such, chaplains and other welfare workers are unable to enter ports or vessels.

Reverend Dennis Woodward, a chaplain for the Mission to Seafarers, explained the emotional impact of the situation in an article in the Guardian last week, “One seafarer almost cried when I told him I was the last chaplain still visiting ships in the port. He was a seafarer from the Philippines and, like myself, had two small children. He was misty-eyed. He was checking in daily with his family, but [the COVID-19 infection] is also in the Philippines and they are thousands of miles away.”

The Mission to Seafarers and other charities are maintaining support through digital chaplaincy services, available via social media and the internet. The organisation has confirmed it could also drop off parcels, including food and toiletries, to ships unable to disembark in ports.

Virtual consultations are also available through the International Christian Maritime Association, which has launched a Chat With A Chaplain service, where seafarers can connect with a member chaplain in their time zone via live video link.

As organisations strive to help crew on board cope with the psychological impact of the outbreak, others are looking ahead to what will happen when change-overs resume.

“It could lead us into another problem,” said Coles. “Instead of staggered relief programmes, which everybody tries to implement at the moment, we could end up with large numbers of new crew joining ships simultaneously. Their relative unfamiliarity with on-board procedures, the lack of training and proper handovers could result in a swathe of incidents. It is a wholly unsatisfactory and unsafe situation.”

The COVID-19 ‘ripple effect’ could be felt for many months to come.