Picture this: after a long 14-hour flight from Sydney, Australia, a huge aircraft lands in Vancouver, full of passengers and crew. The passengers happily deplane, carry-on luggage in hand. The flight crew are told they need to stay on board, and the flight continues to Toronto.
However, instead of landing in Toronto, the aircraft circles the airport for several hours until the fuel runs dangerously low. It is finally allowed to land at Downsview, where it sits for days, while the crew are not allowed to leave. When the crew ask why, officials shrug their shoulders; the rules are in flux, so everyone has to stay on board, in isolation.
The crew become very frustrated. They are not able to connect with their families, as there is no WiFi on board. They are fed, and there are beds and showers in the first-class compartment. And there are certainly lots of movies. But personal contact with the outside world is very limited. They aren’t sure if they’re being paid or not; most importantly, no one can or will tell them when their isolation will end.
Now, substitute this scenario for a ship’s crew. Substitute the aircraft for a cargo or cruise ship and you will have some idea of what has been happening with seafarers around the world since the first major outbreak of COVID-19 on board the cruise ship Diamond Princess on Feb. 4. Eventually all the passengers were released and flew home, but what about the crew?
As of mid-June, more than 40,000 crew members remain on cruise ships, some in isolation. Many are unable to be repatriated because cruise lines would have to charter flights to return them home and they refuse to cover the costs. With many airlines cancelling flights and countries’ rules about crossing borders changing rapidly, the opportunities for seafarers to return home are simply not available. The condition is incredibly stressful: multiple suicides have been reported as a sense of hopelessness descends on thousands of seafarers who are being treated so cavalierly by governments, institutions and their own employers.
Many seafarers on commercial vessels are working months longer than their contracts stipulated. Most contracts run about 9 to 11 months, yet we have met many seafarers in our Canadian ports whose contracts have been arbitrarily extended to as many as 17 months. Most of this is a result of incoming crew changes: borders are closed to “foreigners” and flights simply don’t exist to enable travel. Crew changes and repatriation are at a standstill.
To make matters worse, most seafarers arriving in Canada have already been in a position to self-isolate for at least 14 days, but they have not been allowed off their ships for fear of bringing in COVID-19. In fact, it is we landlubbers who pose the far greater risk, yet seafarers are being treated as pariahs.
Late on June 30, Transport Canada and the federal government made Canada one of the first countries in the world to facilitate shore leave, crew changes and repatriation for seafarers. Previously, seafarers were only allowed off their vessels to the bottom of the gangway; now, they are able to visit “seafarers welfare facilities” for a “controlled visit” of up to four hours. Prior to that, a “seafarers welfare worker” (i.e., a Mission to Seafarers ship visitor) met the crew, picked up their shopping list and headed out to pick up such items as groceries, socks, toiletries and medication (remember, they arrived with the amount of meds needed for an original contract, not the extended version). One ship’s crew requested 100 bags of Lay’s potato chips. This would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.
Most importantly, Canada is one of the few countries in the world that have declared seafarers to be “essential personnel.”
The next time you enter a grocery store, a dollar store, or any other multi-purpose department-style store, think of the sacrifices made by the world’s seafarers to ensure that we are able to continue to buy all the things we need. Remember that it is the seafarers who ensure the supply chains stay open and operational – transport trucks and trains need the cargo ships to arrive before they can load their own cargo. And please think about 1.7 million seafarers and their families who are still “up in the air.”