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'Sea Prison': COVID-19 Has Left Hundreds Of Thousands Of Seafarers Stranded

Workers at the Port of Baltimore walk down the stern ramp of a vessel. A group that normally welcomes crew members to the city is now acting as couriers, dropping off care packages to those stuck on board ships.
Workers at the Port of Baltimore walk down the stern ramp of a vessel. A group that normally welcomes crew members to the city is now acting as couriers, dropping off care packages to those stuck on board ships.

Once the pandemic began, many countries prevented crew members from leaving ships. Some ended up trapped at sea for more than a year. Maritime organizations are pushing for more seafarer protections.

On a chilly January morning, the Rev. Mary Davisson climbs up the stern ramp of the Tonsberg, an enormous ship bobbing in the murky waters at the Port of Baltimore. Davisson, the executive director and port chaplain of has spent much of her nearly two-decade career helping foreign crew members arriving in port, whether it is giving them a lift into town to buy personal items or just enjoying a coffee with them.

Nowadays the visits are short, just enough time for her to drop off packages that seafarers had delivered to her home, some magazines and other goodies.

"Since COVID started, we've been taking them Hershey's Kisses with a little handout that says 'we can't shake your hand, but we can give you Hershey's Kisses,' " she says.

Aakib Hodekar, a seafarer from southern India, gratefully accepts Davisson's offerings. Like the couple dozen of others onboard, Hodekar is not allowed off the ship because of the coronavirus, even though his contract has ended.

With his woolen balaclava covering most of his face, Hodekar says the ship feels like a "sea prison."

"I'm actually supposed to be six months on the ship," he says. "But due to the COVID, we have extended contracts to eight months."

There was every chance that could go longer once his ship set off that night for New Zealand and Australia. These unexpected extensions are the new norm for seafarers all over the world.

At any given time, there are more than 1.4 million seafarers plying the world's waterways, according to the International Chamber of Shipping. These are the people working on oil tankers and cargo ships that crisscross the globe, carrying everything from electronics to food and medical supplies. Many of them are stranded on board now because of the coronavirus.

"At the peak, it's been 400,000 seafarers trapped at sea, not able to get home," says Stuart Neil, the director of communications with ICS, which represents the international shipping industry in more than 20 countries.

"We've heard stories of seafarers being on board ships for 17 months," he says. "That takes a toll on the seafarers mentally as well as physically."

Stephen Cotton, general secretary of the International Transport Workers' Federation, says that throughout the pandemic, the seafarers have been the world's lifeline.

"We've reminded the world over the last nine months, 10 months, that the world depends on shipping and shipping depends on seafarers," he says. "And I would say the seafarers have been treated rather badly by the world's governments when it comes to responding to these issues."

Jason Zuidema, executive director of the North American Maritime Ministry Association, says that once the pandemic began, many countries prevented crew members from leaving the ships in an effort to curb the quickly spreading virus.

The Rev. Mary Davisson, executive director and port chaplain of the Baltimore International Seafarers' Center, delivers personal items to seafarers who are not allowed off ships.
Claire Harbage / NPR
The Rev. Mary Davisson, executive director and port chaplain of the Baltimore International Seafarers' Center, delivers personal items to seafarers who are not allowed off ships.

"There was a whole backlog of these crew changes, and certain countries closed their borders entirely," he says. "In fact, there are still countries that are ...completely closed, where seafarers still cannot get home."

Zuidema says that includes small South Pacific islands such as Fiji, Tonga and Kiribati. But he says even now larger nations — such as the U.K., Singapore or Australia — can quickly close or reopen, depending on the threat of the pandemic.

The International Chamber of Shipping's Neil says maritime and international shipping organizations have appealed to governments to loosen restrictions on seafarers.

"But what you're seeing is that governments don't talk to each other internally," he says. "The Ministry of Transport [doesn't] talk to the Ministry of Health or the health departments." He says decisions about opening borders are being taken at the cabinet level, "but maybe they're not permeating down."

Most seafarers are from the Philippines, India, Russia and China. Even if they're allowed to disembark in a country, they often need to quarantine for two weeks at a local hotel before they can get on a flight home. And then there's the challenge of actually finding a flight home.

They are only paid when they are onboard and working.

Capt. Hedi Marzougui, a U.S. merchant marine, says he was comparatively lucky — he only spent six months at sea last year, twice his normal time. His ship normally rotates in and out of Singapore, but the city-state shut down crew changes in the opening days of the pandemic.

"It happened several times, because we go back to Singapore every month, so every time there's a hope that we'll get off," he says. "And then there's 'nope, not going to happen this time.' So it happened two or three times before I got off."

Shipping vessels are docked in the Port of Baltimore this month, waiting to be loaded or unloaded. Seafarers are not allowed off the ships due to COVID-19.
Claire Harbage / NPR
Shipping vessels are docked in the Port of Baltimore this month, waiting to be loaded or unloaded. Seafarers are not allowed off the ships due to COVID-19.

Marzougui says it was tough for him as a captain when his crew asked when they were going to leave the ship.

"I even heard a few people talk about faking or actually hurting themselves for real so they could go home," he says.

Marzougui says that several times, the bigger shipping companies organized special flights to get crews home, at considerable cost. Still, he worries that not enough attention is being paid to the seafarers' situation. "I think that we're not a priority because we're a hidden workforce," he says.

And while it's tough now for many seafarers to get off the ships, there are others still waiting to get on — which means they're losing income.

International maritime organizations have been pushing governments and companies for more protections for the seafarers. The Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change committing "to take action to resolve the crew change crisis" has been signed by some 300 shipping, logistics and transport businesses, as well as the World Economic Forum.

And late last year, the U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution urging countries to designate seafarers as key — or essential — workers, a designation that would allow them to get off ships and would help repatriation of stranded seafarers.

The International Transport Workers Federation's Cotton says that resolution represented real progress in the hope of getting regular crew changes.

But then new variants of COVID-19 began cropping up.

"I think we felt just in December, we kind of got it to a place where it was beginning to be manageable," he says. "And then we see immediately the third wave. The different countries are closing their borders again."

Meaning those who move most of the goods on which the world depends will likely have to stay at sea a bit longer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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