Athens: For nearly four months, Capt. Andrei Kogankov and his oil tanker crew haven't set foot on dry land. With global travel at a virtual standstill due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Russian captain was forced to extend his normal contract. He still doesn't know when he'll be able to go home.
Countries across the world have imposed lockdowns, shut borders and suspended international flights to curb the spread of the new coronavirus. Merchant ship crews have become unintended collateral damage.
About 150,000 seafarers are stranded at sea in need of crew changes, according to the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS). Roughly another 150,000 are stuck on shore, waiting to get back to work.
“In some ways, they've been the forgotten army of people,” said Guy Platten, secretary general of the ICS. “It's not a tenable position to keep on indefinitely. You can't just keep extending people,” said Platten.
With more than 80% of global trade by volume transported by sea, the world's more than two million merchant seafarers play a vital role.
“They're out of sight and out of mind, and yet they're absolutely essential for moving the fuel, the food, the medical supplies and all the other vital goods to feed world trade,” Platten said.
International shipping organisations, trade unions and shipping companies are urging countries to recognise merchant crews as essential workers and allow them to travel and carry out crew changes.
“Our challenge now is to get a very strong message to governments. You can't expect people to move (personal protective equipment), drugs and all the issues that we need to respond to COVID, and keep cities and countries that are in lockdown fed, if you don't move cargo on ships,” said Steve Cotton, General Secretary of the International Transport Workers' Federation, or ITF.
“They've got to recognise the sacrifice seafarers are making for our global society.” Kogankov is seven months into a four-month contract and was supposed to be replaced in mid-March in Qatar. But a few days before he arrived, Qatar imposed a lockdown and banned international flights.
From there to South Korea, Japan, South Korea again and on to Singapore and Thailand, each time the same story: Lockdown. No flights. No going home.
The open-ended extension of his contract — and with it the responsibility for his 21-man crew and a ship carrying flammable cargo — is taking its toll.
“When you are seven months on board, you are becoming physically and mentally exhausted,” Kogankov said by satellite phone from Thailand.
“We are working 24/7. We don't have, let's say, Friday night or Saturday night or weekends. No, the vessel is running all the time.” Officers sign on for three to four months, the rest of the crew for around seven months. But they always have an end date. Take that away, and suddenly the prospect of endless workdays becomes a strain.
“We're gravely worried that there could be a higher increase of incidents and accidents. But we also are seeing a high level of what I would describe as anxiety and frustration,” Cotton said.
“If you don't know when you're going to get off a ship, that adds to a high level of anxiety that really is quite demoralising.”
Unless governments facilitate crew changes, Cotton warned, “it's difficult for us to convince the seafarers not to take more dramatic action, and ... stop working.”
It's not just crew changes that are problematic during the pandemic. Getting medical help for seafarers has also become difficult, as Capt. Stephan Berger discovered when one of his crew fell ill — not with coronavirus.
Lockdowns in successive ports made visiting a doctor impossible. It took multiple phone calls and the combined efforts of a Dubai paramedic, Berger and the German ship-owning company to eventually get the necessary care for the crewmember, who was hospitalised for three weeks.