Challenges in Securing Vaccines, Seafarers Stuck in Chaos

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  • Difficulties securing vaccines mean seafarers face job losses as well as obstacles to returning home after finishing contracts.
  • Overworked crew members have been forced to stay on board even after their contracts expired due to a lack of crew change options.
  • Indian seafarers left in limbo as coronavirus restrictions create chaos in shipping industry.

A recent news article published in the SCMP by Sonia Sarkar reveals that seafarers are left uncared and are in limbo due to the Covid 19 restrictions in shipping sector.

The story about seafarers

This is the fourth in a  series of stories about the impact of India’s Covid-19 crisis on the Indian and Chinese economies and the global initiative to restructure supply chains.

O.F., a 44-year-old mariner who works for a Hong Kong-based shipping management firm, planned to be in Goa only until April, as part of a four-month break from his last seafaring stint which lasted for nine months.

But as of last week, he remained in his hometown on India’s west coast, a casualty of the country’s surge in Covid-19 cases that has resulted in some shipping companies shunning Indian crew for their vessels.

Their decision stems from more than 24 countries including Britain, the US and Australia banning travellers from India , preventing the companies replacing existing workers on cargo ships.

Several major ports in mainland China, Singapore and the UAE have also barred crew changes for ships arriving from India.

Company asks seafarer to vaccinate

O.F. said his company told him to get vaccinated so he could rejoin his vessel.

In April, he used the government app to book his first vaccination appointment, which he got only this month.

But with India short on vaccine supplies – only 3.8 per cent of its 1.35 billion population have been fully vaccinated – O.F. will have to wait until August for his second shot.

India is the world’s fifth-largest supplier of sailors after China, the Philippines, Russia and Ukraine, with Indians making up 240,000 of the 1.7 million people crewing some 50,000 cargo vessels.

About 14 per cent of Indian seafarers have been vaccinated with at least a first dose. About 1 per cent have been fully vaccinated, media reports said.

Chaos for crew and companies

For seafarers and shipping companies, India’s Covid-19 troubles have added to the chaos of the past year.

A surge in consumer demand since late 2020 propelled increased volume from China to the US, leading to record freight rates.

But coronavirus restrictions meant many crew members were unable to disembark at ports of call or even leave their posts for a crew change. Some ended up extending their contracts, which are set at a maximum of 11 months, according to the ­Maritime Labour Convention, beyond their original tours of duty.

A.P. Moller – Maersk’s own protocol

A.P. Moller – Maersk’s own protocol includes isolating crew members for 10 days, and administering two Covid-19 tests before they can join the vessel.

Darryl Jude D. Souza, chief engineer at A.P. Moller – Maersk, had his first vaccination shot in April and might have to prolong his leave in Mumbai until July to receive his second.

He said shipping companies had become stricter with Covid-19 rules as some seafarers had tested negative before embarking on their journey to reach their ships in various ports, but tested positive on arrival.

What happens next?

The IMO has urged governments to prioritise vaccinating sailors, and designate them as essential workers exempt from travel restrictions.

Kochhar agreed, saying it would also help if countries worldwide agreed on a uniform Covid-19 testing protocol and were willing to vaccinate seafarers who came to their ports of call, regardless of where they came from.

“Vaccinations seem to be the most crucial step for seafarers,” he said. “Acknowledging their role as ‘essential workers’ who need to travel around the world and cross international borders several times, potentially exposing themselves to the virus, it is imperative the seafarers are prioritised to receive Covid-19 vaccinations regardless of the geography they are in.”

The US and the Netherlands have begun immunising all seafarers regardless of their nationalities.

The Seafarer International Relief Fund, set up by ICS and other industry bodies, has so far raised US$300,000 of its US$1 million target to help seafarers and their families around the world.

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Source: SCMP

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