Innocent victims of coronavirus crisis

Meet those working around the clock to help seafarers caught out by Covid-19

By Felicity Landon

On May 1, in response to a call from the International Chamber of Shipping and International Transport Workers’ Federation, ships’ horns were sounded in ports around the world to recognise more than 1.6m seafarers – the ‘unsung heroes of global trade’ during the Covid-19 pandemic and, of course, at every other time too.

A nice gesture and one that possibly raised the visibility of seafarers just a bit… but as David Hammond, chief executive of Human Rights at Sea (HRAS), says: “It isn’t any good everyone tooting their horns on ships and making a big show when next week we still have the same ongoing issues of seafarers and their families suffering.”

Everyday reality is tough enough for seafarers. Covid-19 has served to add to and magnify the difficulties they face. First and foremost, the near impossibility of organising crew changes in the face of travel and border restrictions and lack of flights has left thousands stuck at sea weeks after  their contracts should have ended; equally, thousands more are ashore in dire financial straits because they are unable to join their ships.

The Revd Canon Stephen Miller, the Mission to Seafarers’ regional director in East Asia and senior
chaplain based in Hong Kong, has received disturbing phone calls from seafarers in the Philippines two months or more overdue to start a new contract. “They can’t pay the bank loan on their house and can’t afford to buy food, and are depending on neighbours for rice and sugar,” he says.

Meanwhile, seafarers on ships have talked to him about being in a ‘floating jail’. “There is no
shore leave, no understanding of when they are going to get home, and the companies can’t tell
them because they don’t know either.

“In January, when the infection started coming from Wuhan, the seafarers didn’t want to get off
the ship in case they caught something from us. Now it is completely the reverse – seafarers are
not allowed off their ships because the port is worried we will get something from the seafarers,
who have maybe come from Europe or America.”

Demand for visits

At the time of writing, the Mission team was allowed to visit ships in Hong Kong but could only deliver shopping as far as the gangway. Their services are much in demand. “We are taking lists in advance from ships heading here,” says Canon Miller. “We started an app showing what we can provide and there’s a box for other requests.”

Those requests have ranged from a basketball to sausages. And notably, requests for data roaming cards has increased tenfold from its usual level.

“One ship wanted 80 data roaming cards – each one lasts a month, there are 20 people on the ship and they were preparing for maybe four months at anchor. For ships that have broadband, that is fantastic – but still probably 60% of the ships we see don’t have that kind of [internet] access for everyone.”

Ship visits by the Mission have almost doubled to 500 a month in Hong Kong. Obviously the visits are shorter because they can’t go onboard, but nevertheless the ships are “queueing up for us” says Canon Miller, including in the anchorage.

HRAS’ David Hammond is concerned that with the Covid-19 focus on ‘stoic messaging’, the plight of seafarers is not understood. “It shouldn’t take a virus to highlight the worth of seafarers and their importance in the supply chain,” he says.

The reality is that seafarers are caught between nations with different perspectives and different advice, he says. “A collective response is what is needed in order to get us back to whatever the ‘new normal’ is.”

He adds: “There are many good companies doing good things; owners and ship managers are doing their level best to get people home. If the pandemic crisis continues, the concept of designating major hubs with all the necessary infrastructure, medical, quarantine and customs facilities will have to be one of the solutions, especially because when aviation does come back, no one knows which routes will be open.”

The seafarers speaking to HRAS have highlighted three concerns. First, their families, and not being able to get home to them. Second, the lack of access to constant and consistent advice, including advice on quality PPE. Third, if seafarers are giving their view, they don’t want to be identified for fear of being blacklisted.

“Increasingly we note that seafarers understand the situation is out of their hands, and there is a slow acceptance of the situation. But obviously there is the issue of mental health and agitation and family worries. We also have examples of crew being stuck overseas and having to pay their own hotel bills – and they have nothing. They simply don’t know when they are going to get home, their contracts have not been extended and their new contracts have been held in abeyance.”

He believes uncertainty is the big- gest nightmare. “Seafarers just want to be told the truth, whatever it is, and that means managing expectations.”

Food expectations

Food is always important for seafarer morale and now even more so, says Christian Ioannou, managing director of Marine Catering Training Consultancy (MCTC) based in Cyprus. There have been supply chain challenges and logistics restrictions but MCTC has kept on top of things because it has strong relationships with global suppliers, he says.

“Of course, our clients were worrying [early on] about lockdowns – no one really knew how far the situation would go. So we were stepping up supplies for quite a few months to make sure they had [more] provisions on board. We stocked up some vessels with provisions for four to five months to make sure they didn’t run out.”

Sharp Crew Management had repatriated more than 8,000 cruise industry crew members by early May, via 13 full charter flights and two commercial flights, says Roger Storey, managing director. He expected to increase this to 9,000 by mid-May – although the closure of the main airport in Manila had held up two further charter flights.

However, crew can be home – but not home. “When seafarers do get back to the Philippines they go into quarantine for at least 14 days, and we put them into two hotels in Manila.

They have the frustration of not being able to get out of their room. When they have done 14 days, they are free to go – but there have been no domestic flights and no ferries, so they can’t get home.”

There were hopes (at the time of writing) that the government would organise some charter flights purely to get unquarantined seafarers home, but there is also the challenge of airports in other provinces being closed.

On the cargo side, meanwhile, “frankly not a lot is happening”, says Mr Storey. “Most cargo owners stated that they couldn’t do crew changes in April and that increased into May. Some countries or ports don’t want to do crew changes and, even if they could, seafarers are not necessarily able to fly back from anywhere to the Philippines.

“They are stuck on board with the frustration of not doing eight or nine months but ten, 11 or more. Some companies are giving them an additional allowance or other benefits like more access to the internet.