Ship Crews Stuck at Sea Are Facing a ‘Humanitarian Crisis’

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Even as countries try returning to some semblance of pre-pandemic life, ongoing restrictions are wearing thin a crucial human link in the global supply chain.

More than 200,000 seafarers stuck on merchant ships carrying everything from medical supplies to grain and oil are at increasing risk of mental and physical fatigue as port restrictions and canceled flights snarl the ability of vessels to change crews, according to the International Chamber of Shipping.

Though invisible to most consumers, seafarers have kept international trade afloat through the pandemic and what’s likely the worst recession in almost a century. While industry bodies like the ICS warn the sector faces a “humanitarian crisis” that jeopardizes the flow of goods and is pushing for governments to ease restrictions, some shippers and crew are taking matters into their own hands.

In some cases, ships are diverting to ports they wouldn’t otherwise visit to swap workers, a practice typically reserved for medical emergencies. Meanwhile, firms are seeking to ease the burden on crews. A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S, which controls about a fifth of the global fleet used to transport goods by sea, has extended seafarer contracts and offers benefits like increased internet connectivity and mental support programs.

“Crew changes are by far one of the biggest challenges to shipping that have emerged from this virus outbreak,” said Ralph Leszczynski, head of research at shipbroker Banchero Costa & Co. “The preferred solution so far has been to extend the existing contracts of the crews” as deviating a ship could add hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs, he said.

Seven bulk carriers diverted this month to change crews in the Philippines, home to one in four of the world’s seafarers, while another is expected to arrive in June, according to local manning agencies A. Magsaysay Inc. and Baliwag Navigation Inc.

Oil tanker China Dawn, which was en route to Singapore from Brazil, diverted to the Indian port of Cochin this month to allow workers to disembark because of the mental strain from the prolonged period at sea, according to reports from newspaper South China Morning Post and Splash, which covers the shipping industry.

“Stringent restrictions imposed by many countries, including denial of shore leave and access to essential medical assistance, is contributing to fatigue and exhaustion,” ICS said in a May 21 letter to United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres. “We are concerned about suicide and self-harm amongst this vulnerable population of workers.”

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