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Getting seafarers vaccinated is the key to solving the crew change crisis

The lifeblood of global trade is shipping. It is how we get over 90 percent of our goods, medicines, devices, and food. And it is thanks to seafarers that we have these things that we need for our daily routines. 

The global economy depends on the world’s 2 million seafarers who operate the global fleet of merchant ships. Without them, the oldest and most efficient form of trade would not exist. It is thanks to seafarers that we owe so much of what we have. However, as devastating as the COVID-19 pandemic has been for global society, it has been especially detrimental to seafarers, as they have been prevented from getting on and off their vessels due to government restrictions related to the pandemic. 

The outbreak of COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020. More than a year later, travel restrictions still severely impact seafarers; as of January of this year, about 400,000 seafarers remain stranded on board their vessels. Months after their contracts have ended, they cannot return to their home countries, let alone their homes and families. And about the same number of seafarers desperately need to replace them to support their families. 

Being a seafarer is not even in the remotest terms “easy.” It requires extensive training and certification such as the Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW) Mariners obtain their STCW qualifications by taking extensive courses before they can even seek employment. The position they apply for, and the one they are assigned, determine their courses and the qualifications they must receive. 

In addition to all the things they have to learn and the training they are required to have, they live on ships virtually cut off from the rest of the world for months on end. Feelings of loneliness and a sense of isolation are common occurrences living at sea. However, the pandemic has intensified those feelings to an incredibly damaging extent, severely impacting seafarers’ mental health. Though there has been the rare case of COVID on ships, the pandemic’s most significant and most detrimental effect on seafarers has been on their mental health. 

The crew change crisis, which the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) declared a humanitarian crisis, has affected as many as one in six of the one million crew on 100,000 cargo ships at sea. Some employment tours have even stretched on for more than 17 months, far longer than what the mariners’ contract states, and international conventions stipulate. Being at sea for so long––away from their families and loved ones––has, unsurprisingly, mentally and physically exhausted crew members and has caused feelings of anxiety, depression and uncertainty to rise.  

According to statistics from SeafarerHelp, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted seafarers in several different ways, including stress and anxiety about health and family, social isolation, mental and physical fatigue and crew conflict. Tensions between mixed nationality crews are also much higher because of the pandemic. It is reported that some nationalities are not allowed ashore or allowed crew changes, while others are, which further impacts crew wellbeing.  Most recently, with the surge in India’s COVID cases, Indian mariners are being denied access in Singapore and Dubai. 

Their hardships and the ongoing struggle to be recognized internationally as frontline workers have not made the situation easier. A year into the pandemic, and despite all that they have endured and how important they are to global society and the global economy, they still face enormous challenges. 

To help the situation, many companies and organizations have urged governments to give seafarers their much-deserved recognition and designation as essential workers. As of April 23 2021, 58 IMO Member States and two Associate Members have designated seafarers as key workers, but many more countries need to do the same. 

As many people are now eligible to receive vaccine shots, seafarers must remain at the forefront of vaccine distribution so that governments can repatriate them. In order to do so, seafarers need the designation of key worker so that countries can prioritize them to receive COVID-19 vaccines.  

Singapore is an example of a country that has prioritized workers in the maritime sector, including seafarers working in port waters for vaccinations. As of April 12, the Maritime & Port Authority of Singapore (MPA) has facilitated more than 120,000 crew changes in Singapore and vaccinated more than 27,000 port and onshore marine personnel. To date, seafarers still have a hard time getting vaccinated and the MPA has been working with the IMO to encourage member states to prioritize maritime workers as they have. 

In March, the ICS launched a COVID-19 vaccine guide co-produced with the International Maritime Health Association, Intertanko, and the International Transport Federation (ITF), to secure seafarer safety. The guide, “COVID-19: Vaccination for Seafarers and Shipping,” is meant to be used throughout the industry and ensure that seafarers are kept fully informed about vaccines. The hope is that the guide will help stop the spread of vaccine misinformation by providing a trusted source of information for crew members to make informed decisions. The guide comes as various nations are considering launching “vaccine passports,” which could worsen the ongoing crew change crisis. The number of seafarers already impacted by the crew change crisis could rise drastically if more countries begin requesting vaccine passports.  

The Neptune Declaration is another initiative to combat the crew change crisis and prioritize seafarers for vaccine doses. Signed by more than 800 organizations, it outlines the main actions that need to be taken to resolve the situation. The declaration urges governments and other stakeholders to work together with the maritime industry to ensure that seafarers––regardless of their nationality––get priority access to COVID-19 vaccines in recognition of their crucial role in global trade. To facilitate crew changes, it also urges the establishment of a standardized format for “health passes” containing tamper-proof information about vaccination and testing status for seafarers. 

To bring awareness and appreciation towards seafarers, NAMEPA and the World Heritage Society partnered to create Heroes At Sea, an initiative to recognize Day of the Seafarer on June 25. During the event, which runs from May 25-June 25thpeople are encouraged to walk, jog swim or cycle in tribute to seafarers and “circumnavigate” the globe.  Participants, including companies, can write messages dedicated to appreciating seafarers.  The proceeds from this initiative will go to seafarer welfare organizations. 

This year, everything felt like it was put on pause. Like The Day the Earth Stood Still but for a year. However, thanks to seafarers, the Earth did not stay still, and our global supply chain remains intact.

Andrea Duran

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