14th May 2020
Isolation at Sea
In these Covid-19 days of isolation and lockdown people are finding it hard to adapt and talk about it being a struggle because they cannot go to a bar or restaurant or socialise with friends or family. It’s been 7 weeks now since the UK Government imposed lockdown and yet people have still managed to see friends and relatives from a distance. When I drop essentials off at my elderly mother’s I still chat with her for 10 minutes across the garden.
In experiencing this isolation people can get an idea of what life is like on board a ship, transporting the goods we like to buy, whilst travelling around the world.
A crewman at sea during normal, non Covid-19 restriction times does not have the luxury of being able to see loved ones or friends over the garden fence for 10 minutes. They see their fellow shipmates during their shift and mealtimes but tend to sleep or remain in their cabins when off duty. Occasionally, whilst the ship is loading/discharging in port, they can get a few hours of change of scenery ashore, maybe to sample the local cuisine in a restaurant and see a famous landmark.
The modern seafarer is experiencing isolation simply to undertake their daily job, working hard to bring money back for their families. They are usually away for 4 months at a time and they work hard in the knowledge that at the end of their stint, they will be back with their loved ones. The thought of the reunion with the people they love gives them the hope and strength to carry on, get the job done and then go home.
Unfortunately due to the Covid-19 pandemic flights are grounded, more than two thirds of the world is restricting travel and ports are not accepting people traversing through. Crewmembers are unable to get home at the end of their time onboard ship. They cannot even go ashore for a few hours when the ship is loading/discharging, they must remain onboard in isolation.
Some ship managers are trying to boost the morale of crew stuck on board ships indefinitely beyond their contracts. To combat stress, anxiety and promote well-being, ship managers have introduced measures focused on extra activities such as games and competitions or having barbecues.
Most have allowed free calls home with increased broadband so that crew can keep in touch with loved ones. Access to helplines for counselling and advice and access to round-the-clock medical staff is also on offer.
Besides keeping active with some form of exercise, the crew welfare charity Iswan has also recommended quiet time, for prayer and meditation, inviting seafarers to draw on inner strength and faith. Limiting news consumption was also encouraged in the face of the invisible threat.
The CEO of Thome Group, Olav Nortun has said that extended time onboard will be a challenge. Fatigue risk is definitely there, and the company is carrying out regular health checks and running drills so that crews are able to manage the situation.
To keep the crew occupied and take their minds off the crisis, Thome have arranged different kinds of weekly activities with rewards at the end of it, such as photo competitions.
Thome have some 5,500 crew members presently at sea, 11% of which are now on overdue contracts. This will increase to 18% by the end of May.
Olav Norton also said that for now, a positive takeaway is that port delays and fewer inspections actually lessens the stresses faced by the crew.
V. Group’s director for health and safety, Matt Dunlop, in a recent BIMCO webinar, said that crews understand the situation and are coping, although that could change in a few weeks time, if the contracts are extended further. Matt Dunlop went on the say that prolonged periods at sea significantly increases the mental well-being issues of seafarers and jeopardises the safety of the vessels they sail on.
“Governments need to adopt policies to allow movements of seafarers,” he said, adding that progress is being made for an industry repatriation alliance, although it is just a concept at this stage.
Human Rights at Sea, a UK-based charity, said it has been receiving feedback from seafarers, with at least nine crew members overdue for relief who are fatigued, both mentally and physically, and under enormous psychological pressure to safely execute their shipboard responsibilities.
The common threads of concern besides mental exhaustion and safety on board, focuses around fears about being stranded and unable to get home to support their families, according to the statement. Depression may also be setting in for some. One seafarer, who was not identified, said that he had been on board for six months already, two months beyond his usual contract term.
Despite calls by the shipping industry to designate seafarers as key workers, exempt from travel restrictions during this global health crisis, no decision has yet been taken and there is no clear and consistent approach. Even within a country, rules can differ from state to state, posing immense challenges for logistics operations.
Even if seafarers can get to airports in their home countries, onward travel may be difficult. A spokesperson at the International Maritime Organization recently said that discussions regarding repatriation are ongoing. Its secretary-general Kitack Lim recently issued a statement in which he said the inability to resupply or repatriate crews concerned him greatly.
The IMO has appealed to governments to take a pragmatic approach. On the 1st May the International Chamber of Shipping and the International Transport Workers Federation encouraged all ships to sound their horn at 12:00 local time in a gesture of solidarity to recognise over 1.6 million seafarers across the world, the unsung heroes of global trade, who are keeping countries supplied with food, fuel and important supplies such as vital medical equipment not only through the COVID-19 pandemic, but every day.
Sadly as I live in land, I didn’t hear it and, on reflection, neither did many millions of people whose livelihood and sometimes lives depend upon these seafarers putting in a shift and then being left onboard – in isolation.