It’s all over the news. The coronavirus outbreak is gripping people in fear.
Nobody is allowed to leave their homes as the government imposes community lockdown and quarantine. Pubs, restaurants, cafes, parks, and public places are empty.
As a seaman, being in a quarantine sounds normal. We are living in this huge cubicle with about 20 people. The ship is our home, restaurant, cafe, park, mall, and working area.
As long as we are not in physical contact with the outside world, we remain virus-free. But for how long?
Before the Outbreak
I had the opportunity to sign on our ship in the middle of February 2020. Back then, airports where I connected my flights with were in normal operation.
In Manila, some travelers were wearing N95 masks but most had nothing. I had my first connecting flight in Doha and the situation there was nothing special.
My connecting flights going to the ship on Feb 14 before the global coronavirus outbreak.
It was the same on my second connecting flight which was to Madrid. I think there were 1 in 20 people wearing masks, some of them looking Asian.
I signed on in Algeciras, Spain and the news about COVID-19 didn’t make any impact. It was like any regular day and people were enjoying the warm sun.
Normal Port Stay
After that, I haven’t actually followed the news. We had this very short time charter voyage and everybody was very busy.
It was also normal in port. No special measures were taken from the shoreside. Visitors didn’t wear any masks, just the required working PPE.
With two voyages in a week, I can hardly watch the news. We thought everything was fine but we underestimated the situation.
A Global Pandemic
We were in Sines, Portugal the first week of March. When the jetty man handed me the spare battery radio, he had tissue around it and made sure we were two arms’ length apart.
I thought he was just overreacting. Life went on on board with our short voyage, drills, and work.
The moment we caught up with the world, corona virus disease already spread in Italy, France, Spain and most of Europe.
Number of cases were spiking from country to country. New infections numbered into hundreds then thousands. Death tolls were piling up. And government enforced strict community lock downs.
Suspended Crew Change
Some of our crew mates are nearing the completion of their contract. But due to the pandemic, they may have to stay on board a little longer.
On the other hand, seafarers on land may have to extend their vacation and hold on to their remaining budget.
Borders between states and countries are temporarily closed. Citizens are advised to stay at home. Most businesses and governments are on shutdown too.
The airline industry is one directly affected by the coronavirus. To curtail the spread of the disease, authorities imposed travel bans and restrictions.
All these mean that crew changes are put off for quite some time. The infrastructures that help “move” people is grounded to a halt and nobody knows when this is gonna end.
Shoreleave is one of the things I look forward to upon visiting the port. And ports on the Mediterranean side are perfect for going ashore.
However, while sailing a few miles from the coast, the Spanish Port Control made a broadcast via VHF that shore leave is not allowed in Spain.
Our Captain also prohibits us from going ashore. But even if shore leave is allowed, we won’t find anything in the city since everything is in lockdown.
Stranded Cruise Ships
Cruise vessels are greatly affected by COVID-19. With some of their crews and passengers having confirmed cases, a lot of ports decided not to take them in.
Many of them are left to anchor for quarantine measures. Some seek special requests for docking. It took great diplomatic efforts before some ships were even allowed to dock like what happened in Cuba.
Even when other ports accept them for going alongside, passengers and crew are screened and separated from those who tested positive or have the symptoms.
Global Economy Crashes
The Shipping industry transports 90% of the world’s goods. These numbers are driven by people’s consumption from every corner of the world.
Ships play a vital role in importing and exporting these goods. But with all the lockdowns and business closures, the movement of these cargoes is restricted.
People are staying at home. They have no income as companies requested them to take unpaid leaves. Since spending fuels the economy, restrictions like these affect the shipping industry too.
Ships only transport the necessary supplies. Medical equipment, medicine, food, raw materials, and our basic needs are the ones shipped out fast.
Are Seafarers safe from Corona Virus?
As long as people interact closely with each other, contagion is possible. A ship in port has more risk of getting the virus than at sea.
The shipping industry can not function (yet) on full automation. People are needed to move goods.
Thus, seamen in port are at risk. Visitors who have no symptoms but have the disease may infect the crew unknowingly.
Cargo, stores, provisions, and spare parts may also be infected. Remember that these items came from different places and were put together by people and machines.
People handling them may have the disease.
Is it better to be at sea?
Seafarers have the best lockdown and quarantine measures in place. The sea itself isolates the crew from the outside world.
The outside world can not infect vessels at sea as long as there is no physical contact. Ships with long voyages or extended anchorage will be safe from the virus.
Hopefully, scientists will develop a cure before some ships run out of stores, provision, water, or bunker.
I also personally prefer to be at sea in this time of crisis.
Infection on board
But this advantage also has a downside.
When a crew gets infected after visiting a port and starts to show symptoms while at sea, all of the crew is in danger of contagion.
Living spaces on board are very limited and everyone interacts with each other in some way. Self-isolating the infected crew is possible but still, the risk remains.
The vessel is also not equipped with the right medical equipment. If someone shows symptoms, we can not tell if it’s COVID-19 or just a simple flu.
This alone gives fear and stress to the crew. How much more if it’s the real virus?
Measures taken by the Shipping Industry
The maritime sector actively takes steps to fight the disease. We are all in this together. As the WHO Director-General said in his speech,
“This is not just a public health crisis, it is a crisis that will touch every sector – so every sector and every individual must be involved in the fight. ”
Information to Seafarers
The best way to fight this virus is to know what it is and how it infects others. Thus, informing the seafarers on shore and on board is a huge step.
In our vessel alone, an article from the World Health Organization (WHO) about COVID-19 is posted in the mess hall for everyone to read.
The IMO also provides measures and updates on their website on how to avoid the infection.
Delaying Crew Change
The risk of getting the virus is high when people start to go outside their homes. Thus, some companies postpone their crew changes for an indefinite period.
Crew traveling from ship to their homes are also at risk of acquiring the disease.
When they arrive at their house, they may have to undergo strict self-isolation for 14 days before they can interact with their friends and families.
Moreover, airplanes are grounded and only essential flights are allowed. Some government agencies are shut too.
Facilities required for crew change are probably closed. It’s best to delay crew change until the situation improves.
Even with the coronavirus pandemic in place, the shipping business continues to operate. It is still essential to move cargo in this time of international emergency.
With this, ships in port are at risk of getting the infection. One of the precautions is to screen visitors whether they have visible symptoms.
Gangway watchmen may also be required to wear masks, face shields, gloves, and goggles especially when dealing with them.
In the ship’s office, officers and crew may also wear masks and disposable latex gloves. A sanitizer spray helps to disinfect the room and everything that visitors touch.
Maintaining distance between visitors can be a good way too.
Everyone is serious. Shore guys think that the crew on board may have coronavirus. But we also think that they have the virus.
However, I think this is a good thing since both parties are taking measures to protect themselves.
WHO Hygiene Guidelines
The World Health Organization publishes simple guidelines on how to prevent the spread of coronavirus disease. They are applicable to any people including seafarers.
- Always clean your hands with alcohol or soap and water.
- Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing and throw away tissue. Immediately wash hands.
- Avoid close contact with anyone who has a cough, fever, or any flu-like symptoms.
- Seek medical help immediately if you have any flu-like symptoms and quarantine yourself.
- Wear masks, gloves, and goggles when interacting with port visitors.
- Avoid touching your face; nose, eyes, and mouth.
- Maintain at least a 1-meter distance from visitors especially if they sneeze or cough (social distancing).
- Avoid consumption of uncooked meat or animal products.
Stay safe. Stay healthy. Safe sailing.
May the winds be in your favor.