Under lockdown? Then you should think like a seafarer

Seafarers need to be registered as essential for economies globally and their signing and off of ships permitted or we will see bigger problems

If you are reading this, under a form of lockdown in your own homes, then you are experiencing something akin to how seafarers live a large part of their professional lives. You are only able to go from room to room: home office to bedroom to social area/lounge to bathroom to kitchen. And hopefully your kitchen/galley is sufficiently stocked,because that food delivery firm you were using has you at number 5,000 in the queue. Your only outdoor exercise is perhaps on your patio, balcony or back garden or driveway – the deck – if you are lucky, though not if the weather is bad.

Now imagine you are then told you need to maintain this regime for an extra period of time, perhaps another 30 days, and even then, you have a feeling you will not be able to leave your house then either. And of course when you do leave your house to go somewhere else, you can’t simply because you are not considered an essential part of the infrastructure to keep your society rolling.

Last week a number of industry organisations came together to issue a statement to try and put pressure on governments and other authorities to recognize the importance of goods transportation in our lives.

Concern

There has been a growing voice of concern for ships crews.  Yes, they are accustomed to some of the sorts of privations many of us are now experiencing, but that is not the point. Some have been onboard for months and are fraught not knowing what is happening back home and unable to return home.

For many the impact is not of the coronavirus itself, but of the global response to it, that has led to ports, airports and societies shutting down. Frank Coles, CEO of ship manager Wallem, has been vocal about raising awareness of the role seafarers play, especially during a pandemic. In a recent speech he pointed to the impact that the pandemic response ( more than the virus itself will have) on the global economy and the shipping industry, not least how this is demonstrating the value of and approach to digitalisation.

It is a point worth noting. It is not so much the corona virus that is impacting society, business and shipping, it is our response to it, and the ability to use our increased levels of digitization that differs today’s society from the self quarantine of earlier epidemics.

Seafarer charities are trying to do their bit, to offer  advise and support as best they can, but being already cash strapped and stretched they acknowledge how much more help they also need.

The Sailors’ Society launched a campaign last week to raise funds to help those who are stranded, while there has been a call for more to be done to ease the anguish of crews who are spending longer on ships than they should have done.

Roger Harris is executive director at the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network, ISWAN. He told Fathom World while the advice has been to keep crew onboard, it is only prolonging and possibly even worsening the problem.

And even if they are allowed off the ship, many will not be able to get home to their countries – India, Philippines etc – due to ports and airports being closed.

Crews are anxious and worried, both those on-board vessels that have not been able to communicate properly with loved ones at home, but also crew members who have been home and desperately need to resume work.

The impact of the coronavirus has yet to be felt, though some shipowners have already begun to layup tonnage and scrap it in fear of the worse. For crews this may add to uncertainty.

Making a difference

One response announced recently came from ship manager Synergy, with its CEO Captain Rajesh Unni calling for a coordinated response with key ports being asked to permit transfers even though they have all but closed their doors, leaving crews and vessel all at sea.

In many ports crew changes are simply prohibited,” he wrote in a press release issued 26th March. “Elsewhere, vessels from some origins are now forced to remain at anchorage in quarantine for up to 14 days before they can dock. To make matters worse, it is also becoming increasingly difficult for crew to stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables such are the restrictions placed on port agents and captains. And how are seafarers with medical conditions supposed to get treatments if they can’t leave the vessel? “This is a safety issue and it’s a mental health issue.”

Hi calls follow from the published opinions from Danica Ship management a few days earlier encouraging crews to be kept on board for a short period, with Henrik Jensen, Managing Director of Danica Crewing Services saying that crews face a bigger risk of catching the virus while travelling to and from embarkation.     

Switch the meters off

Roger Harris points also to the need for shipowners and managers to make connectivity freely available. While recognises that many of the major managers had already begun to offer free access, he says there remain some smaller owners in particular, of which there are many, that insist on charging crews for the data access.

“Six weeks ago we did a survey of ship managers and owners,“ said Harris. “There are some giving free access, some free for a period, but we do know that there are operators charging a lot for data. In the coming two to three months we need to be able to offer seafarers increased access”

While Harris points to his recent push to get the communication companies to offer more, Inmarsat has now announced it will open up its offering. In a statement handed to the press Inmarsat president Ronald Spithout said the company is working with wholesale suppliers of connectivity services to add further services beyond discounted connectivity and free telemedicine calls.

While not pointing directly at being able to offer crews free connectivity he did reference a report Inmarsat commissioned recently that underscored the rationale to giving crews ubiquitous access to help them with welfare, such as resolving home issues.

“As COVID-19 unfolds, much more will certainly need to be done to work more closely with shipowners, managers and even the Master on board to ensure crews get access to the packages available. In addition, earlier this week, I hosted a conversation with the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN) and the main maritime charities to discuss development of a crew portal and further data and voice incentives for
crew quarantined on board”

Off the ship but not getting home

Harris at ISWAN also pointed to the seafarers that are currently stranded in a worst-case scenario and therefore at risk.  There are Indian seafarers  stranded in Spain and Iran unable to travel, he said, and Filipino seafarers that have managed to get to Manila on their way home to the provinces, but currently stranded.

“We understand the Stella Maris Seafarers Centre in Manila is full of seafarers unable to get home in the provinces. It is housing seafarers and running out of money. Its dormitories are full.”

There is increased pressure for port state control and governments around the word to consider seafarers as crucial for society to continue running smoothly and to be allowed to travel to and from their places of employment, while still enforcing covid-19 containment, so crews may still need to undergo a period of quarantine in relation to their travel to and from a vessel.

“Seafarers need to be classed as key workers, to allow them to join and leave vessels. We see [normally] up to 100,000 seafarers involved in crew changes every month,” said Harris, noting that most seafarers will have already served a multi month trip when it comes time for their repatriation, some trips last over 9 months. “After a further month when one expects to go home it will impact efficiency, mental well being and being able to keep one’s mind on the job.”

Helping hand for the helping hands

ISWAN, which is UK based, is also under lockdown, and likely to be that way for some time soon, but Harris said the charity’s seafarer’s helpline was remaining open, being manned by experts who are working from home. But he said  seafarer charities which have already been struggling, have seen demand for their care and compassion increasing, and they are in need for further support.

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