Marooned by covid – how the crew-change crisis trapped 800,000 seafarers

In March 2020 the shape of the coming crisis was clear. A normal month would see approximately 100,000 seafarers around the world either leaving their ships at the end of a nine-month engagement, or joining new ones. At a stroke covid changed that. Shipping companies immediately sought to arrest the virus’ spread by leaving crew members on board. Flights home were cancelled, ports restricted entry, and ships were laid up.

Within a month, the International Transport Workers Federation and the International Chamber of Shipping issued a joint statement calling for international help. Since then, the UNS general assembly has adopted a declaration calling for seafarers to be recognised as key workers; over 700 organisations have signed the ‘Neptune Declaration’ calling for greater help for seafarers; the International Labour Organization (ILO) Governing Body adopted a resolution on the crew change crisis, and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has appointed a ‘crisis action team’ to intervene.

By any standards, this emergency spurred an impressive response. Nevertheless, the numbers stuck at sea grew and grew. By the Autumn of 2020, the IMO reported that 400,000 seafarers were stuck on their ships. That has probably declined to 200,000, but is predicted to rise again in the coming months. Many ports used the risk of infection as a reason to ban shore leave including for any medical treatment. 

In one particularly dramatic example, a 45-year-old Russian seafarer showed signs of having had a stroke while his ship was 220 miles from the nearest port. Initially permission was refused for a hospital transfer – and it took several days of tense negotiations before he was allowed to come ashore for treatment. 

Speaking in March 2021, IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim said: “the crew change crisis is far from over.  Importantly, issues around vaccination need to be resolved.  Now, more than ever, seafarers need to be designated as key workers to ensure priority vaccination and access to safe transit and travel”. 

For the vast bulk of seafarers the most obvious impact of the crisis is missing family. As times on board extended, hundreds of thousands of seafaers have missed parental milestones. Others have forgone time with family members whose health is precarious. And, of course, births, weddings and funerals have taken place with loved ones absent because they have not been able to leave their ships. All add to the stress of being as sea for prolonged periods, and for some the impact has been fatal.

International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network executive director Roger Harris, for example, is reported as saying that the number of notified suicides, and instances of seafarers calling help lines about suicidal thoughts, has “roughly doubled” since March 2020.

When workers are operating such a complex mechanism as is a modern merchant ship, of course, the dangers are not just personal. Extensive research shows that significantly extending normal tours of duty increases seafarers’ long-term fatigue. This can adversely affect their health, of course, but even more worryingly affects their ability to do their jobs safely. Research by the World Maritime University published in 2020 suggested that “minimum safe manning (levels) are not adhered to in most instances”. The consequences of this, are entirely predictable as a study in 2014 showed: UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch identified fatigue to be the major contributing factor in 82% of the groundings and collisions included in its survey.

Some observers have gone so far as to call the crew change crisis, ‘shipping’s greatest challenge since the second world war’. One of its most striking features, however, has been the stoic professionalism with which it has been met by seafarers themselves.

“Anyone who has been at sea knows how precious is time ashore, either catching up with family, or just resting in a way that is not possible when you are on board”, says Mark Dickinson, general secretary of Nautilus. 

“All over the world’s ships and oceans seafarers have faced this terrible situation with resolve and fortitude. Now is the time to show them that we appreciate their efforts. Many shipowners currently have very healthy balance sheets – a decent raise in the seafarer’s minimum wage is the best way to recognise the unique sacrifices made by their crew. My plan is to make sure that happens when the talks at the International Labour Organisation commence later this month.”

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