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Tanya Blake, SAS editor. Credit: IHS Markit

Governments around the world must protect their seafarers and ensure crew changes are not suspended amid the COVID-19 travel restrictions

We are currently facing unprecedented times, with the effects of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic impacting everyone’s lives. Seafarers, as with many essential front-line workers, are feeling the brunt of keeping the global supply chain running.

Crew are more resilient than most, used to the stresses and strains of the job and being away from home for long periods of time. However, this situation only serves to amplify these issues. Not to mention that seafarers, just like anyone else, are concerned about contracting the disease, and not being able to look after or protect their loved ones during the outbreak. Calls to seafarer support lines are unsurprisingly at an all-time high: There was a 40% spike in calls to Synergy Group’s helpline in February alone.

Meanwhile, other normal support structures for crew are being altered. Due to social distancing or quarantine measures being enforced around the world, contact with charity staff in ports has drawn to a standstill. Fortunately, charities such as Sailor’s Society are offering virtual assistance in place of face-to-face support.

What is of concern, however, is that despite maritime organisation’s calls, shore leave and crew changes are being prevented in ports around the globe. The International Chamber of Shipping and the International Transport Workers’ Federation sent an open letter to the United Nations on 20 March to urge that governments continue to let ships and crew gain access to ports and facilitate crew changes.

Despite this, on 23 March, Taiwan suspended shore leave for all foreign seafarers, impacting any crew changes scheduled in its ports. Other countries have taken similar approaches, including Singapore, which has closed its borders indefinitely to seafarers and passengers on short-term visits. There must be measures put in place so that crew can be relieved and return home, rather than face an endless extension of their time aboard.

Not all in shipping share this stance. A press release sent out on 24 March by crewing services company Danica urged it is better for large numbers of seafarers to avoid crew changes and extend contracts up to 12 months, rather than risk infection. Henrik Jensen, managing director of Danica Crewing Services, warned if crew do develop severe symptoms on board, ships lack the medical expertise and equipment to deal with it.

However, there are ways to prevent crew from contracting the virus, such as measures to distance crew from shore-based staff and pilots. Frank Coles, CEO of Wallem Group, made an impassioned plea on LinkedIn for crew changes to continue, highlighting the massive mental toll it is taking on crew unable to go ashore. He shared an email from a master that said he and his crew were in a “state of mental turmoil” as, their signing off had been indefinitely delayed because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. “Everyone is eagerly looking for sign off at the earliest even if we require to divert the ship and [are] not willing to sign any extension of contract,” the master wrote, adding, “I’m personally very much disturbed for not being able to support my family during this hour of need.”

As Coles stressed, seafarers are “citizens of countries” too. Governments must work to ensure their seafarers are protected and can return home. Exempt crew from national travel restrictions and protect the very people keeping the world’s maritime supply chains running from lasting psychological and physical damage.