Omicron Surge makes crew changes difficult at busy freight ports

With 1.5 million seafarers globally spending long distances away from land, only about a quarter of them are fully vaccinated, estimate ship operators, crew agencies and trade bodies. industry.

The low vaccination rate limits the movement of crews as countries enforce new travel restrictions for people who have not been vaccinated.

Many ports in Asia are forcing sailors to wait seven to ten days before disembarking to make sure they are not infected. Meanwhile, sailors traveling to port cities to start contracts are stranded at border posts that require proof of full vaccination.

“Every time there is a change, the borders close. Governments prevent people from moving, but they want cargo to move normally, ”said Rajesh Unni, managing director of Synergy Group, a Singapore-based ship and crew management company that manages more than 500 vessels. . “We have had 56 countries tightening travel restrictions with Omicron and some sailors from South Africa have been hijacked and quarantined in hotels.”

Crew changes take place regularly at major ports of entry in China, Singapore, Los Angeles, Houston, the Netherlands and Belgium, with more than 150,000 sailors flying around the world each month to meet connect with ships and replace colleagues who have been at sea.

Governments have tried to balance efforts to curb the spread of Covid-19 and the need to keep commodities flowing around the world amid widespread supply chain disruptions.

Several maritime countries, including the United States, Indonesia and Greece, have said they will recognize seafarers as essential workers, but difficulty coordinating cross-border efforts has slowed progress, a senior Greek government official says. . Among the obstacles, the official said, many ports, airports and other points of entry have not been clearly tasked with prioritizing seafarers, and seafarers have not been provided with the proper documents for priority checks. at borders and embarkations.

The International Maritime Organization, the United Nations body that regulates global shipping, has repeatedly stated that the inability to rotate crews has become the biggest challenge facing shipping operators. He called on governments to recognize seafarers as essential workers for global supply chains and to exempt them from barriers to travel.

“They are still not considered essential personnel, but without these workers you would not have food, medicine and other essentials,” said Jan Dieleman, president of Cargill Ocean Transportation, which operates more than 700 ships and is a unit of the American commodities giant. Cargill Inc. “Sailors cannot travel or have priority for vaccines. It’s super complicated.

The peak of seafarers stranded on ships came in late 2020 when nearly 400,000 had to work for months beyond their contract, according to the International Chamber of Shipping, a professional body in the industry. The ICS, along with vessel operators and crew chiefs, have estimated the current number of stranded sailors at around 200,000.

ICS secretary general Guy Platten said the Omicron variant prompted governments to impose new restrictions on travel to the Philippines from Belgium and the Netherlands, and that the flow of goods was slower between France and the UK after Paris banned most travel for people coming from England. .

“General regulations disrupt supply chains and transport workers should have the right to go through them,” Platten said.

Port authorities and nonprofits in ports such as Los Angeles, Long Beach, Rotterdam and Singapore are now offering free vaccinations to seafarers.

Protocols adopted by the International Maritime Organization call for crew members showing symptoms of Covid-19 to be isolated in cabins, with food and other supplies left outside rooms by co-workers in gowns surgical and masks. If an infected sailor deteriorates, the captain must find a port to let them out for treatment.

“We have had a number of countries that have refused to take in sick seafarers,” Mr. Unni said. “And once one crew member is infected, there’s a good chance others will be.” The virus is not going away and we have failed to cross political halls and tell policy makers this needs to be fixed. “

Some sailors who have been able to disembark after completing their voyages find it difficult to return home.

Adolpho Soledad, a mechanic, was due to return to the Philippines this week to celebrate Christmas with his wife and four young children. Rather, he’s in a hotel in South Africa.

Mr Soledad was among thousands of travelers whose flights were canceled when the Omicron variant was discovered in the country in November. Having spent the past eight months traveling on a bulk carrier between Africa and China, he has yet to be vaccinated and does not know when he will be allowed to travel.

“I managed to stay healthy and couldn’t wait to go home with my family,” he said. “Now I’m stuck alone and every time I call home my youngest daughter is in tears begging me to come back. It breaks my heart.”

Write to Costas Paris at [email protected]

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