COVID-19 makes it harder for commercial shipping crews to go home

April 03, 2020

That feeling when your boss asks you to work an extra shift? Imagine that, but with the requirement of months — not hours — longer at the office.

That’s how 100,000 of the world’s commercial shipping crews are feeling as coronavirus shuts down ports of entry, forces airlines to ground their entire fleets of planes and countries close borders to prevent further spread of the illness.

After working for months, oftentimes, aboard their ships, crews are now being asked to stay on longer because they simply can’t get home.

The International Maritime Organization, which looks after safety and security of the industry, held a virtual meeting on Wednesday with other leaders from the United Nations to discuss the issues of human welfare and security of the global supply chain. But so far, there hasn’t been a coordinated response from countries, organizations and companies for how ships can continue to operate in the rapidly evolving landscape.

Capt. Rajesh Unni, the chief executive of Synergy Marine Group, which supplies crews for commercial ships, says a balance must be struck immediately. An edited transcript of his conversation with the BBC’s Victoria Craig on the global edition of Marketplace Morning Report is below.

Capt. Rajesh Unni: We are dealing with an uncertain situation. Most of us have frozen any crew changes. That’s an interim measure. But what we are now saying is that we should, as an industry, look at collectively and carefully managing crew changes at designated ports. We can’t expect the seafarers to stay indefinitely. I want people to remember when they go to the supermarkets and see stock on their shelves, or when they turn on the gas in the kitchen, or go to the gas station, there are unsung heroes who are moving those goods from point A to point B.

Victoria Craig: People who have been asked to stay home to try and stop the spread of this virus might wonder: Why don’t you just keep the crews on board? Because, essentially, they’re already quarantined. You know that no one on board has the virus. In that case, why is it a bigger risk keeping crews on board longer than they need to be?

I want people to remember when they go to the supermarkets and see stock on their shelves, or when they turn on the gas in the kitchen, there are unsung heroes who are moving those goods from point A to point B.

Capt. Rajesh Unni, Synergy Marine Group

Unni: Naturally, for anybody to do something meaningful, they need alignment in their passion and purpose. Part of every individual’s purpose is also to take care of the family and look after the well-being of people around them. So, in that sense, when they are completely removed from these people, and they just don’t know what’s happening, and it’s been four to six months since they’ve even gone and met their family, it’s not so easy to say, “OK, why don’t you stay another three months?” You’re expecting them to perform in a very high-risk environment. You’re working on gas tankers, different types of ships, dealing with gale-force winds, everything is very different. Everything is very dynamic. So it’s not fair to compare quarantining people over three weeks at home in an office environment to another two months on the ships.

Craig: What tools do the ships have to keep the crew safe if someone does become infected on board?

Unni: You have a hospital, some antibiotics, and in moderate to severe cases, you have oxygen. Each ship carries 10 liters of oxygen, and you have supply for everyone to last two days [used intermittently for critical care and resuscitation]. But the bigger challenge is if someone needs immediate attention, and the ships come into a port, and they’re not given access. I understand that countries have to assess their own risks because they don’t want local community spread of coronavirus. But we need to step up and identify which ports are critical and prepare a proper, robust risk assessment plan, then make sure that there is an opportunity for these people to come in and go out of the country.

Craig: The group that represents ship owners, the International Chamber of Shipping, has urged for key-worker movement restrictions to be relaxed. The International Maritime Organization, which looks after safety and security of the industry, has also agreed. Who ultimately will make the final decision on what the rules should be?

Unni: It’s not more about the shipping industry, it’s also about the states in which the ships call. Say a ship is calling into Rotterdam. The facilities in Rotterdam and the government, the immigration, should allow such people to be able to get off the ship and go to the airport and fly back to their home country. … The next challenge is how do you fly them? Most of the airlines are not operating. We need to have governments say “OK, we have created a designated corridor, we have created a designated standard operating procedure, we know how to take a guy off the ship and take him to the airport and fly him off in the most secure manner.”

Craig: With factories shut down all around the world because of coronavirus, is your industry still moving as many goods as it was before the crisis?

Unni: Absolutely not. There are different sectors that react differently. Container ships don’t have the same load because we don’t have the same cargo to move from the source. At the same time, there’s a lot more tanker cargo moving around. But we should not forget people on board are human at the end of the day, and they’re facing the same hardships as you and me.