It’s all over the news. The corona virus outbreak is gripping people in fear. Nobody is allowed to leave their homes as government imposes community lock down 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.
It was the same in my second connecting flight which is Madrid. I think there were 1 in 20 people wearing mask, some of them looks Asian.
I signed on in Algeciras, Spain and the news about the COVID-19 didn’t made 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 taken from the shore side. Visitors didn’t wear any mask, just the required working PPE.
With two voyages in a week, I can hardly watch the news. We thought everything was fine but we under estimated the situation.
A Global Pandemic
We were in Sines, Portugal the first week of March. When the jettyman handed me the spare battery radio, he had tissue around it and made sure we were two arms length apart.
I though he was just over reacting. 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 corona virus. To curtail the spread of the disease, authorities imposed travel bans and restrictions.
All these mean that crew change 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 upon visiting port. And ports on the Mediterranean side is perfect for going ashore.
However, while sailing a few miles from 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 lock down.
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 request for docking. It took great diplomatic efforts before some ships are 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 against those who are tested positive or have the symptoms.
Global Economy Crashes
Shipping industry transports 90% of the world’s goods. These numbers are driven by people’s consumption from every corners of the world.
Ships play vital role in importing and exporting these goods. But with all the lock downs and business closures, movement of these cargoes are 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 affects 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 interacts 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 has no symptoms but has 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 put together by people and machines. People handling them may have the disease.
Is it better to be at sea?
Seafarers have the best lock down and quarantine measure 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 voyage 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 port and starts to show symptoms while at sea, all of the crew is in danger of contagion.
Living spaces on board is very limited and everyone interacts with each other in some ways. 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 its COVID-19 or just a simple flu.
This alone gives fear and stress to the crew. How much more if its the real virus.
Measures taken from the Shipping Industry
The maritime sector actively takes steps to fight the disease. We are all in this together. As what 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 the COVID-10 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 change for an indefinite period.
Crew travelling from ship to their homes are also at risk of acquiring the disease. When they arrive to 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 is probably closed. Its best to delay crew change until the situation improves.
Even with the corona virus pandemic in place, shipping business continue to operate. It is still essential to move cargoes in this time of international emergency.
With this, ships in port are at risk of getting the infection. One of the precaution is to screen visitors whether they have visible symptoms.
Gangway watchmen may also require to wear mask, face shield, 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 crew on board may have corona virus. But we also think that they have the virus. But this is a good thing since both parties are doing measures to protect themselves.
WHO Hygiene Guidelines
The World Health Organization publishes simple guidelines on how to prevent the spread of corona virus disease. They are applicable to any people including seafarers.
- Always clean 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 cough, fever and 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 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 on your favor.