With uncertainty over how the COVID-19 pandemic will play out in the future, it is crucial that countries around the world remain committed to keeping their ports open for trade to ensure the continued flow of goods from one country to another. The declaration, supported by the International Maritime Organization, has also called on Governments around the world to designate seafarers as “key workers” to assure their safe and timely repatriation amid the Coronavirus outbreak.
It has been around three months since countries all over the world went into lockdowns and tightened border restrictions to control the spread of COVID-19. Crew changeovers and repatriation is still a concern of seafarers as they are still being denied entry at many ports. The prolonged services onboard has caused pressure on the mental health of seafarers, pushing them towards a state of fatigue. To help crews on board their fleets, shipping companies can only try their luck as ships journey between ports to relief their seafarers. If ships were fortunate enough to arrive at ports that allowed for crew change, shipping companies would then make arrangements for the repatriation of their sea-going workers.
Mental Health and Well-being Concerns All Crew
Gerald Joseph, an engine cadet from the Tripartite Engineering Training Award programme, a place-and-train programme initiated by SMOU, began his contract on board the ship on 1st September last year. Midway through his contract period, he and his crew began to witness the rapid closure of ports. “I was prepared to stay on board the ship for more than a year and be away from my family.” Gerald told SeaVoices.
Gerald recalled that some of his crew mates had already served beyond their contractual tour of duty and are unable to return home because of travel restrictions implemented by different countries and jurisdictions. He observed that the contract extensions affected his crew’s mental health and well-being.
“Some of my crew mates from other countries were already showing signs of depression from not being able to return home. The nature of our occupation involves demanding physical working conditions, potentially hazardous tasks and high levels of stress and fatigue. Not only seafarers are away from family and friends for very long periods of time, many seafarers live isolated lives while on board. This makes us particularly vulnerable to ill mental health.” He added.
Access to Adequate Information Vital for Seafarers’ Wellbeing amidst Crisis
In many cases, it is observed that seafarers do not receive proper information on the pandemic as the internet is a fruitful ground for fake news. Therefore it is doubtful if the information seafarers are receiving through social media is valid.
When asked about how he was kept updated on the ever evolving Coronavirus situation, he shared that apart from the newsletters that were sent to him monthly, important updates on the pandemic were all shared immediately with the crew via email or satellite call.
The open and honest communication between the company and seafarers had provided them some comfort. While there are many ideas and initiatives for boosting the crew’s social life and morale on board in a safe and socially responsible way, the starting point is to talk to the crew and see how they are getting on during these difficult times.
Safeguarding the Health and Safety of Seafarers
When asked if he had anything to share with the seafarers, Gerald encouraged them to “remain resilient and mentally strong” as it can be tough staying on board especially during this challenging period.
Unions around the world continue to stand for seafarers to be recognised and treated as an essential workforce. Countries can do that by taking steps to relax their crew change restrictions so that the sea-going labour force can be rejuvenated with relievers, who are also looking to sail to earn a living.
Following the International Maritime Organization’s circular released in early May to provide member states with protocols for facilitating crew changes, some countries have begun working towards implementation of the framework. Several ports around the world will now permit crew change under specific conditions, including Singapore.
As we progress on this front, it is important more than ever for port authorities around the world to assist seafarers in crew change so that the global supply chain and port operations can remain undisrupted.