Challenges faced by Indian seafarers & trade due to second wave Covid and way forward

Capt MM Saggi, Former Nautical Advisor to Govt of India

1. Challenge: Over 75 % of Indian seafarers work on foreign flag vessels.  Most of these vessels rarely call Indian ports. Indian seafarers have to join foreign flag vessels mostly on foreign shores. Due to recent highly infectious pandemic outbreak in India, most of the countries are prohibiting crew change with travel history to India in last 14 days. 
2. Way forward: 
2.1. Indian seafarers can be kept in bubble, in a dedicated hotel or offshore, on a cruise liner, under quarantine, for 14 days in a nearby country, under special arrangement, which is well connected but outside the red list, such as Dubai, Qatar, Abu Dhabi etc. 
2.2. Ships on east west route via Suez or Persian Gulf Far east route can be diverted to Kochi, where a similar bubble & 14 days quarantine centre can be created for crew change. Similar bubbles can be created in Indian ports, where crew change is planned.
2.3. A sanitised suitable vessel can also be used for transferring sanitised crew in ports, sheltered / safe waters, anchorages or at high seas, with due permission of authorities. 
2.4. Indian seafarers on coast or on ships calling our ports can be replaced with due caution. 

3. Challenge: There are numerous compelling reasons for priority vaccination for seafarers.
3.1. Ship managers / owners are not keen to employ Indian seafarers if they are not vaccinated. 
3.2. In enclosed ship environment, infection spreads quickly from one seafarer to whole crew.
3.3. At sea, seafarers have no access to doctor, CT scan, oxygen & intravenous medications.
3.4. Ship with infected seafarers will certainly be quarantined in ports of call, seriously delaying cargo operations. Shippers / consignees would choose only ships with safe & sanitised crew discouraging ship owners / managers to employ non-vaccinated crew. 
3.5. Many countries do not even allow transit rights to seafarers if they are not vaccinated. 
3.6. Ships are operated with minimum manning. One sick crew impacts ship's safe operation.
3.7. Not vaccinating Indian seafarers has a serious bearing on their employment prospects as competing manpower supplying nations are giving priority vaccination to their seafarers. 
3.8. If due to pandemic fear, seafarers stop sailing, 90 percent of the world trade could come to a grinding halt. 
4. Way forward: 
4.1. Total number of active Indian seafarers in the country is estimated at around 2.5 lakhs. On average about 20,000 per months or 700 per day are likely join ships. If all seafarers need to be vaccinated on priority with two dozes, only about 1400 dozes are required per day to cover entire population of Indian seafarers in an year.  This is not a very large number. Seafarers can pay for vaccine at market price & recover same from employer. 
4.2. Seafarers have already been notified as key workers by Ministry of Home affairs order dated 21st April 2020. Director General of Shipping vide order dated 23rd April 2021 has notified Mumbai Port Trust Hospital as a centre for priority vaccination of seafarers. It may be advisable if through a directive of Ministry of Home affairs, all vaccination centres across the country are directed to give walk-in priority to seafarers on showing their Continuous Discharge Certificate (CDC) as proof of their identity. 
4.3. Employer can also supplement this effort by vaccinating sailing seafarers in ports where such facilitation is available. 
4.4. As a responsible member state, India can persuade International Maritime Organisation (IMO) & International labour Organisation (ILO) to exhort member states to offer priority vaccination to all seafarer, in all ports, not only for welfare of seafarers but to also keep world trade flowing smoothly. India can take lead by walking its talk.

5. Challenge: Ships calling Indian ports are being quarantined and delayed in different jurisdictions across the world. It is apprehended by the rest of the world that crew of the ships' calling Indian ports may have got infected, while dealing with various stake holders in Indian ports. Consequently, many foreign ships may stop calling Indian ports. At present more than 90 percent of India's EXIM trade is carried by foreign ships. A boycott of Indian ports by foreign ship may cripple our trade, economy and energy supply lines.  
6. Way forward: 
6.1. All authorities and stake holders in Indian ports such as customs, immigration, port health, agents, stevedores, ship chandlers, repair and service personnel, Port State Control, Flag State Inspection, Classification Societies etc. need to be advised not to breach ship's crew safety bubble and instead deal online on all such issues, with ships calling Indian ports. Also curtail crew shore leave on all vessels, till pandemic subsides.  
6.2. These measures will comfort foreign ships & foreign ports, obviating adverse impact on entry of ships, which may have called Indian ports. This is also safe for shore personnel.  
6.3. If boarding of some shore personnel such as pilots etc. is unavoidable, all such persons need to be vaccinated and well protected for safety of ships' crew and their own safety.
6.4. This can be standard protocol for all ships in all ports till there are lurking fear of covid. 
6.5. Chinese ports banning ships calling Indian ports in last 3 month needs to be challenged. 

7. Challenge:
A number of Indian seafaring jobs may be lost as most employers may prefer to replace sailing Indian crew by crew of other nationality, on completion of their tenure, as vaccinated and sanitised Indian crew to replace them are not readily available. 
8. Way forward: Indian seafarers presently sailing on ships, not calling Indian ports, can be requested to voluntarily extend their service contract for a few more weeks till we put our house in order and the world is in a position to accept sanitised Indian seafarers on foreign shore to replace sailing crew.  This will help save existing Indian jobs on foreign flag vessels.  

9. Challenge: Seafarers do not have dedicated equipment such as oxygen, ventilators and medications on ship to treat covid patients. Indian seafarers are trained to render medical first aid but not formally trained to deal with covid to prevent, protect, detect, treat, isolate, report and repatriate impacted seafarers. 
10. Way forward: Guidance can be developed nationally to supplement the available quality information, to deal with all above concerns including placing the requisite equipment & medications on ships and training required for seafarers. A modular standard certificate training program can be developed as value added course, covering all such aspects, by employers of Indian seafarer, in coordination with Director General of Shipping. This course may also be completed online. This will give confidence to seafarers and comfort their employers and other stake holders.  Subsequently it can be shared with IMO as a recommended / mandatory training program for seafarers of all nationalities on all ships.

(Courtesy: Marex Media)

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