Shipping is essential to ensuring sustainability of global supply chains and it will continue to be the backbone of international trade and world economy. From ancient Phoenician times till modern days, shipping marvels on human proficiency of physics, engineering, navigation and trade management skills.
This industry endeavours to acquire a vessel from one port to another, every day, while keeping the crew safe and cargo intact, without which food security and energy supply would not be achieved or emergency life saving drugs couldn’t reach to citizens at corners of earth.
The year 2020 has so far been a roller coaster and shipping is going to face its biggest challenge in the coming days. A catastrophe like COVID-19 pandemic management is a team work of all segments of society having the health professionals as fore front soldiers, while contributions of administrators, security personnel, NGO workers, volunteers and journalists are also of great value.
Can we imagine a group of invisible heroes out at sea, who are silently maintaining the supply chain for the front line fighters and the billions of people in the planet that are locked down right now?
It is not surprised that as a community, seafarers always remained as unsung defenders. Seafarers, who on a daily basis throughout this COVID-19 crisis are going above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that countries are kept supplied with goods they need. In this tough time the seafarers has shown the highest professional level by remaining calm, resilient as all the ports of the world has restriction for shore leave and the contract period for the crew getting overdue and a complete uncertainty about crew change.
COVID-19 has been declared a ‘’Pandemic’’ by the WHO on 11th March 2020. Since then governments all over the world has closed the borders, cancelled all the international flights. At present situation due to its rapid spreading, it is very unlikely to see any crew change within the next few months. Crew staying on board are already due for repatriation but could not sign off until the situation resumes to normal. Certainly, this will become cause of physical fatigue, mental stress and psychological disorder for many crew members, in view social distancing and isolation techniques adopted at work places.
When a ship berths at port it needs to get provision, spare parts, stores, bunker, survey, inspections. At the same time loading/discharging operations also need to be continued. Seafarers are prone to fatigue because of this tight schedule. Furthermore, due to such hectic events many people on-board without any safety measures or tests as there is no standard protocol to check COVID-19 infections in the incoming groups. In an unfortunate scenario the crew might as well find out after sailing that someone on-board is exhibiting corona infection symptoms. If one crew member gets infected, then it is obvious that all members of crew would be under quarantine. In this locked down situation it is very unlikely to get any medical service from the shore hospitals. While carrying out day-to-day operations seafarers are also entitled to commercial pressure from the owner/ company regarding safety and operational performances.
Seafarers working at ships are the most vulnerable at this stage and they should be treated wisely and considered as key workers. Governments should ease the restriction of the airports to allow crew change, so that crew can join their family and at the same time fresh crew can join back which is very important to maintain the flow and ensuring the safety and well being of the ships’ crew and the safe operation of the maritime trade.
Bangladeshi seafarers has enormous contribution in international and national shipping, the existing number of the ocean going merchant marine officers and crews (ratings) are approximately fifteen thousand and the contribution from them to Bangladesh economy is about 400 million $ per year.
At this crucial time when Government of Bangladesh (GoB) is taking several key initiatives to safeguard the frontline warriors of this pandemic, and rightly so, it is high time that GoB should also seriously think about the often forgotten silent combatant in the background, the seafarers. It will be an earnest supplication to the Honourable Prime Minister, from seafarers of Bangladesh working all around the globe, to consider our wellbeing and investigate the situation at the soonest. We know PM is spending sleepless nights and fighting to keep the COVID-19 at bay. But at the same it is very important to keep your keepers of the Supply Chain alive, safe and active to support your fight with full effectiveness during and post COVID-19 pandemic. After all, it is the well being of our beloved Bangladesh that we all are working for.
It may be worth to mention that, a several hundred million dollars valued and high-tech vessel at sea is under command of seafarers, whose mental and physical fitness is mandatory as per international conventions, such as MLC 2006 of ILO (International Labor Organization) and STCW convention of IMO (International Maritime Organization). Failing to keep our seafarers fit could cause hazards to life, wealth and environment at sea. God forbid any shipping accident due to non compliance of international conventions would cause disruption of emergency supply, wealth loss from non protection of insurance and that may also tarnish image of our beloved country within global maritime industry.