COVID-19 fears restrict movement of cargo ship crews
Nilay Syam
Shipping companies are struggling to relocate seafarers after multiple states imposed limitations on crew change over fears of the COVID-19 virus spreading. (Credit: AP)

Shipping companies are struggling to relocate seafarers after multiple states imposed limitations on crew change over fears of the COVID-19 virus spreading. (Credit: AP)

Crew members on cargo ships have been one of the worst affected as port authorities scramble to isolate vessels in a bid to stop the COVID-19 virus from reaching their shores. China fares high on international trade and any interruption in that part of the world has severe consequences for global commerce. 

According to the latest statistics from Clarkson Research Services, China accounts for 35 percent of seaborne dry bulk imports, 30 percent of container exports, 23 percent of crude imports and 18 percent of gas imports.

Shipping companies are struggling to relocate seafarers and fly them home after Hong Kong, Singapore, Philippines and Taiwan amongst others imposed limitations on crew changes. Some ships have been forced to deviate to other destinations so the crews can be repatriated because staff who are currently at Chinese ports have not been allowed to leave, except for medical emergencies.

The charity, the Mission to Seafarers, when asked about crew morale, said: "they (the crews) are understandably concerned."

"Our chaplains report morale is broadly good as many crews have already been at sea since before the epidemic. Understandably, many are concerned for their families back home."

Nautilus International, a trade union for maritime professionals, said crews that have visited Chinese mainland are being denied off-signing by port administrations. Off-signing is when a seafarer finishes his or her contract of employment onboard a vessel and prepares for transfer and transport home.

Refusal to off-sign by the disembarkation port could result in the individual being stuck onboard for many additional weeks, or months, depending on the vessel's schedule.

Crew relief refusal is a direct contradiction of a warning from the International Maritime Health Association (IMHA) which advised against restrictions imposed on the embarkation and disembarkation of merchant navy sailors in non-affected ports. The IMHA also recommended that ship operators store facial protection for all crew, with a minimum of five pieces per person.

In a statement Nautilus International said: "Shipping companies and port operators must provide workers with the latest information regarding the outbreak, follow best practice in regard to health and safety protocols and supply of personal protective equipment, put into effect procedures to identity symptomatic travelers, crew and/or workers, and set clear guidelines for workers managing suspected cases of infection."

The coronavirus epidemic has thrown global cargo shipping out of sync, setting the scene for prolonged delays in the delivery of goods.

The disruption comes at a time when shipping lines are feeling the strain of weaker demand and higher operating costs after the International Maritime Organization (IMO) issued new regulations on low sulfur fuel.

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