Maritime plea over seafarer COVID treatment

A group of leading maritime organisations have called for greater support to seafarers to deal with the spread of COVID amid concerns the global supply chain is close to breaking point.

The International Labour Organization (ILO), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), and the World Health Organization (WHO) have issued a joint statement demanding support from global governments.

“The continuously rapid spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, including the Omicron variant, is a stark reminder that the COVID-19 pandemic is not over. The epidemiological situation continues to evolve, posing renewed challenges to societies and economies, including to international shipping, which is critical for global trade and sustainable development,” said the statement.

The organisations added while the impacts of the Omicron variant and related policy responses depend on a range of factors and vary considerably, common and proactive approaches are needed to address evolving challenges to international shipping and its key workers, and to minimise adverse impacts on seafarers and their families, as well as on global trade, supply chains and sustainable development, while continuing to protect local communities.

“Throughout the pandemic, the world’s 1.9 million seafarers, many of whom are from developing countries, have played a vital role in ensuring the continuous flow of critical goods along supply chains, hence keeping the world’s shipping and trade moving,” said the statement. “However, as a result of some of the international traffic-related measures that have been put in place to mitigate the health and health systems impacts of the spread of the virus, many seafarers are still unable to leave ships, remaining stranded at sea far beyond the expiration dates of their contracts and the default 11-month maximum period of continuous service on board, as required by the Maritime Labour Convention, 2006.

“For the same reasons, some seafarers have been unable to join ships to replace stranded crews, leading to a significant loss of income and resulting in hardship for seafarers and their families. This humanitarian crew change crisis has resulted in significant mental strain, fatigue and consequently increased the risk of accidents, imperilling working conditions in the shipping sector.”

They called for governments and industry, in collaboration with international organisations, to scale up their common efforts to limit the effects of emerging variants on crew changes while safeguarding the health and wellbeing of seafarers and global communities.
“Virtually since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, a variety of different national and regional approaches have been developed to the introduction of COVID-19-related documents, and their format, to mitigate the impact of the spread of the virus in the context of international traffic,” added the statement. “Such heterogeneity poses challenges related to interoperability, and the ability of border, immigration and public health authorities to verify and validate such documents.”

The organisations said there needed to be better access for seafarers to testing and the equipment that protected them from the spread of the virus.

“Testing is a critical cornerstone of the COVID-19 pandemic response, enabling countries to shape the delivery of health care, to protect vulnerable populations, and, depending on the SARS CoV 2 virus transmission scenario experienced, to suppress its spread,” it said. “Furthermore, the use of appropriate PPE, including face masks, is one of the main tools to enable individuals to protect themselves and others from infection, particularly in closed and overcrowded settings where physical distancing may be difficult to respect, such as on board ships. Seafarers often find themselves in situations where access to COVID-19 testing and PPE is limited, due to the difficulties of receiving tests on board. Employers should ensure that these medical supplies are readily available to prevent or contain potential outbreaks on board.”

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