Why seafarer vaccination is your problem

I’ve worked at sea since 1995, and New Zealand (NZ) has been home since 2009. I’m not sure if it’s home now, even though my house, friends, belongings, and small business are there. You see, because I spent too much time at work, I wasn’t allowed to go home when the government closed the borders to keep COVID out. While I’d prefer to be at home, or at least to have some idea when I’ll be allowed to go home, the government did the right thing.

That’s easy for me to say: I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m stranded in a country where I have a right to live, work, and study. Many seafarers are stuck on ships with no way to get home, get vaccinated, or even get ashore in the foreseeable future. It’s through no fault of their own and, in many cases, no fault of the shipowners.

Many seafarers are stuck on ships with no way to get home, get vaccinated, or even get ashore in the foreseeable future.

Shipowners and governments need to work together to vaccinate seafarers — we’re the pawns in a high-stakes game. It’s high-stakes for us, because our lives and livelihoods are on the line; it’s high-stakes for you because, without us, your supply chains would disappear.

…without us, your supply chains would disappear.

RNZ reported that the NZ Maritime Union suggested not allowing ships into NZ unless all seafarers on board are vaccinated. I fully support that goal. COVID is dangerous — but so are exhausted seafarers driving ships. To protect the landsmen, maybe ships should refuse to enter ports that aren’t vaccinating seafarers and facilitating crew changes so exhausted seafarers can go home. That will prevent further infections and deaths until all seafarers are vaccinated.

Unfortunately, anyone who understands international trade knows that’s not practical. Apart from the fact that seafarers are human and need food and supplies too, ships also carry your vaccines and medical equipment. If we refuse to deliver them, then we’re all stuck — you have no food, vaccines, or equipment, and we still can’t get vaccinated.

Guy Platten, the ICS secretary-general, said in March:

Shipping companies are in an impossible position. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place, with little or no access to vaccines for their workforce, particularly from developing countries.

We’re already seeing reports of states requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination for seafarers. If our workers can’t pass through international borders, this will undoubtedly cause delays and disruptions in the supply chain. For a sector expected to help drive the global vaccination effort, this is totally unacceptable.”

NZ has barely started vaccinating its residents, never mind foreign seafarers. Shipowners aren’t even allowed to buy vaccines without government approval, which governments are reluctant to give. Most seafarers are from countries that have, as yet, no access to vaccines.

Soon, unvaccinated people won’t be allowed on commercial flights. Again, a completely rational precaution. But what about the seafarers stuck on board ships? If someone doesn’t start vaccinating them on board, how will they get home? Of course they’re not your problem, but whose problem are they?

Of course they’re not your problem, but whose problem are they?

Several countries are vaccinating seafarers in their ports. That’s a fantastic start, but not all seafarers work on ships going to those countries. Worse, some countries only allow seafarers or ships in port if they’ve had a specific vaccine.

I’m lucky enough to be fully vaccinated with AstraZeneca. Apparently, that means I can’t go on ships travelling to China. I’m wasn’t planning to go to China, but my vaccine isn’t approved in NZ either. Will I have to get a NZ-approved vaccine on top of my AstraZeneca before I can finally go home?

Let’s ignore for a moment the practical problem of vaccine availability, and the ethical problem of using more vaccines than I need when so many people still have no access. Apparently AstraZeneca plays nicely with Pfizer, but what about Sinovac if my ship goes to China? Or Sputnik if it goes to Russia? Or worse, Sinovac and Sputnik and Pfizer?

The safety and practical problems of receiving a different COVID vaccine for every country doesn’t seem to worry anyone but seafarers. Most seafarers I know would be overjoyed to get any vaccine at all; most shipowners I’m aware of would be delighted to vaccinate their crews, but we don’t always get what we want.

Do governments really expect us to have a full course of every COVID vaccine on the planet so our ships can deliver their goods? Or is that just an inconvenient side effect they don’t need to worry about, as long as people’s online orders arrive on time and there’s enough toilet paper on the supermarket shelves?

Photo by Carlos de Toro on Unsplash

…is that just an inconvenient side effect they don’t need to worry about, as long as people’s online orders arrive on time and there’s enough toilet paper on the supermarket shelves?

Some argue that flag states should vaccinate crew on ships flying their flag. Let’s ignore the fact that many major flag states can’t even vaccinate their residents. Maybe Panama’s nearly 9,600 ships (16% of the world fleet capacity) should sail to Panama to be vaccinated. I wonder what would happen to supply chains if those ships sat at anchor off Panama until all the seafarers on board were fully-vaccinated. While I strongly believe that flag states should take responsibility for their ships, I can see a few problems with that plan.

The merchant navy has kept the world running throughout the pandemic. Kiwis have finally realised the merchant navy is essential. The NZ government even led the way with a plan for sustainable funding for seafarer support services. It’s doesn’t surprise me that NZ is doing the only decent thing and providing support and treatment for the seafarers and fishermen who have COVID. That’s what I’d expect from NZ, and one reason I’m proud to call it home. However, as a seafarer, I find it terrifying that anyone would seriously consider not allowing fishermen to go home at the end of their contracts because it doesn’t “financially benefit the country”, or turning away ships with sick seafarers on board.

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

Since the beginning of the pandemic, seafarers have died after being refused treatment for non-COVID-related illnesses and injuries. Ships have had to carry dead crew members’ dead bodies for weeks because countries won’t allow the bodies to be repatriated.

Imagine for a moment one of your colleagues falling down the stairs or having a stroke at work. You call for an ambulance, but they tell you, “Sorry, we’re not allowed to help people in your office.” Imagine watching your colleague die of a survivable injury or condition, knowing that the hospital could have saved them. If that’s not bad enough, imagine being locked in the office with their body for weeks. If you think that’s unacceptable in your office, then why is it acceptable at sea? We may work at sea, but we’re human too.

Imagine watching your colleague die of a survivable injury or condition, knowing that the hospital could have saved them. If that’s not bad enough, imagine being locked in the office with their body for weeks.

In NZ, the ombudsman is investigating the situation of thousands of NZ seafarers who haven’t been allowed to return home, despite being citizens. Apparently, half the seafarers in a recent international survey are considering leaving the industry, with BIMCO and the ICS forecasting a severe officer shortage by 2026. That comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the industry.

With that background, it would be nice to see some acknowledgement that seafarers don’t choose to get COVID, don’t choose to get stuck on ships, don’t choose where their ships go, and don’t have any option but to work overseas — that’s literally the job description. In fact, seafarers have very few options.

Right now, neither does New Zealand. And neither do you.

What can you do to help?

  • Sign this petition for a global crew change protocol
  • If you live in a country that has vaccines, lobby your government to vaccinate seafarers in your ports
  • Ask your MP to support seafarer vaccination in any way they can
  • Share this post and petition to raise awareness.

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