Coronavirus Global situation

Shipping chaos not going away with most seafarers unvaccinated

Outbreaks on ships will further disrupt trade, among other things, analysts say

A container ship leaving Pusan Newport Terminal in Busan, South Korea, early this month. Infections on vessels could further harm already strained global supply chains, just as the United States and Europe recover and companies stock up for Christmas
A container ship leaving Pusan Newport Terminal in Busan, South Korea, early this month. Infections on vessels could further harm already strained global supply chains, just as the United States and Europe recover and companies stock up for Christmas.PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA • Global vaccinations of seafarers are going too slowly to prevent Covid-19 outbreaks on ships from causing more trade disruptions, endangering maritime workers and slowing economies recovering from the pandemic.

Infections on vessels could further harm already strained global supply chains, just as the United States and Europe recover and companies stock up for Christmas.

The shipping industry is sounding the alarm as infections increase and some ports continue to restrict access to seafarers from developing countries that supply the majority of maritime workers but cannot vaccinate them.

"It's a perfect storm," said Mr Esben Poulsson, chairman of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) representing ship owners. "With this Delta strain, there's no doubt it's setting us back. Demand for products isn't letting up, crew changes aren't happening fast enough and governments stick their heads in the sand."

All signs point to a worsening crisis on the oceans, just as the industry seemed to be emerging from port restrictions that hurt the ability of shipping firms to change crews and left hundreds of thousands stuck at sea for months.

The risks were brought into focus by two recent events that interrupted ports and shipping. In May, a sailor died and dozens of hospital workers in Indonesia were struck by the Delta variant after a ship with an infected Filipino crew member docked.

About the same time, global shipping was thrown into chaos after one of China's busiest ports was shuttered for weeks because at least one dock worker was infected from an outbreak in Shenzhen.

The biggest marine club insurer, Gard P&I, has seen a spike in claims for Covid-19 infections, with at least 100 outbreaks on ships in April and May involving multiple sick seafarers, according to Ms Alice Amundsen, vice-president of people claims. During the peak of the pandemic in July to August last year, Gard saw almost 80 outbreaks on vessels that infected 159 people, she said.

Mr Rene Piil Pedersen, managing director of Danish shipping company Maersk in Singapore, said: "It's a little bit like a fire that is glowing and it could quickly turn into a firestorm again."

Even as more people get vaccinated, Covid-19 will be around for years and there will still be outbreaks in ports and on ships, he said, calling on governments and industry to work together to protect seafarers and dock workers as essential employees supporting critical supply chains all over the world.

Despite efforts in the US and elsewhere to inoculate seafarers who come into ports, regardless of their nationality, most are still largely dependent on their home countries for vaccinations.

More than half of the 1.6 million seafarers globally come from developing nations such as India, the Philippines and Indonesia, which are well behind most developed economies in vaccinations.

The lack of international coordination can be seen in how there is no estimate of the number of seafarers who have been vaccinated. No one organisation or company is keeping track of the situation for all workers across various companies, ships and ports.

The ICS estimates 35,000 to 40,000 seafarers - or 2.5 per cent of the global pool - are vaccinated. However, more than 23,000 seafarers had been jabbed in the US with the help of charities, and China's Cosco Shipping Holdings said last month all eligible seafarers who are onshore have been inoculated.

In the Philippines, several firms including Maersk have said they are working with the government to procure shots for their workers. While seafarers get priority access, vaccines are in short supply, with several cities around the capital Manila halting vaccination in recent days as supplies ran out.

Even if shots were available at home, they are no good for workers already aboard ships, and some of them may not finish their contracts until next year. About 99 per cent of Filipino seafarers are unvaccinated, said Mr Gerardo Borromeo, the Manila-based vice-chair of the ICS.

That is bad news for the shipping industry with the Philippines supplying some 460,000 seafarers, or 25 per cent of the global maritime workforce.

The easiest solution would be for every port to have a clinic and offer vaccinations to all seafarers coming through, according to Dr Ben Cowling, head of the University of Hong Kong's department of epidemiology and biostatistics. So far, that is not happening.

If the risk to seafarers is not eliminated, then further port shutdowns will make it even harder and more expensive to get Christmas shopping done.

"We will run out of the available crew," said Columbia Shipmanagement's chief executive officer Mark O'Neil, whose company oversees a crew of 18,000.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2021, with the headline 'Shipping chaos not going away with most seafarers unvaccinated'. Subscribe