The COVID-19 pandemic has put seafarers around the worlds in a precarious position. It has created dilemmas for these unsung heroes who aid in maintaining the world’s economic growth. It may be mentioned that shipping industry is responsible for 80% of world trade and is thus vital to the supply chain. It is the most efficient, reliable and effective means of transport, particularly for keeping the supply chain open so that the cargo and goods that the world needs every day can be delivered, which is of special importance during such challenging times as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Indian seafarers have played an important role in promoting the global maritime industry. But COVID-19 seems to have created unprecedented problems for the Indian seafarers. Initially they faced the problem of signing-on/signing-off. They were stranded on ships beyond the end of their original contracts and unable to be repatriated due to COVID-related travel restrictions. A similar number of them were stuck at home, unable to join ships and provide for their families.
Now the problem of vaccination has become an enigma for them. Shipowners have begun insisting on hiring crew who are vaccinated ahead of joining ships on their next contract, as new variants of COVID-19 are proving to be a big challenge for health fraternity. Vaccination has become mandatory for seafarers before joining ship.
India was making jabs available to only those aged 45 and above. It may be mentioned that only about 50,000 Indian seafarers are of above the age of 45. Though India is making it possible for all above 18 years to get vaccinated from May 1, the scarcity in the availability of the vaccines is a matter of concern. There is a job uncertainty in the minds of the seafarers. Seafarers’ unions have been encouraging their members to get vaccinated. But the paucity in the availability of Indian made vaccines is becoming a matter of apprehension for the seafarers.
India is a major supplier of seafarers to the global shipping industry, especially in the officer ranks. It provides around 10% of the global seafaring strength, and ranks third in the list of countries that supply seafarers to the maritime industry.
In several countries, seafarers with recent travel history to India have been banned from undergoing crew changes. Ship managers say that temporarily freezing crew change involving Indian seafarers is the only option left for them to deal with the surge in cases in India.
According to leading ship associations this is impacting the prospects of Indian seafarers globally as maritime countries like, Philippines, China, Indonesia, Romania, Croatia, Singapore, etc have already included their seafaring citizens in the list of ‘priority workers’ in the ongoing COVID inoculation process.
With the ongoing long drawn queues and waiting time, the Directorate General of Shipping has now advised the seafarers to get their jabs at the hospital run by Mumbai Port Trust, where this facility has been introduced. But what happens to seafarers who are residing in other cities? Also, with the scarcity of vaccines is it possible for them to be vaccinated at an early date in order to enable them to join the ship? The delay and the uncertainty is having an impact on the mental health of the seafarers. This delay in getting the jabs will force the companies to hire seafarers from other maritime countries.
It is essential for the authorities to bring all seafarers, including the over 2 lakhs who are below the age of 45 years, under the ambit of ‘priority workers’.
Will the government do this? We are waiting with bated breath for this to happen!