Seafarers’ unions have called for governments, particularly those with maritime responsibilities, to endorse universal access to COVID-19 vaccines to prevent the crew change crisis from spiraling out of control for a third time.
At present, around 200,000 international seafarers are estimated to be working on vessels beyond their contracts due to governments’ ongoing border and travel restrictions, with thousands on board more than a year.
With unprecedented coronavirus outbreaks gripping India and other major seafarer labour-providing nations, the maritime industry fears that the number of seafarers trapped working on ships could double within weeks.
International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) seafarers’ section chair David Heindel said: “We are at a crossroads. One path is universal access to vaccines for all seafarers by everyone doing their part: government, union, business; simultaneously and globally. The other path is seriously frightening: Covid on ships, seafarers dying at home, those on board unable to sign off.”
The ITF has also called for governments to support patent waivers at the TRIPS Council meeting on June 8.
Hendel added: “If the wealthy countries do not support patent waivers at the June 8 TRIPS Council meeting, then not only will more seafarers’ lives be lost – we will also miss our opportunity to be rid of the crew change crisis and the daily risk it places on essential supply chains.
“We need to see the home countries of seafarers prioritising them as key workers for vaccines. We need port states to offer vaccines to seafarers visiting their shores. We need flag states to vaccinate all seafarers on ships which fly their flags.”
In a positive step, the Dutch government has partnered with shipowners and local unions to vaccinate 49,000 seafarers from mid-June at a number of ports in the Netherlands and at Schiphol International Airport.
The single-dose Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine will be given free to seafarers working aboard ships flying the Dutch flag or those under Dutch management.
Heindel however noted his concern that some governments including Norway were re-introducing border restrictions after earlier giving international seafarers exemptions to have crew changes.
In recent weeks, there has been an increased effort to prioritise vaccinations in the maritime sector, with 58 seafarers vaccinated at the Port of Oakland in mid-May and 84 seafarers vaccinated this month at the International Seafarers’ Centres in Savannah and Brunswick.
The Port of Charleston has also approved a pilot programme for seafarers to be vaccinated as they arrive via the Charleston Port and Seafarers Society centre at Wando Welch Terminal.