Don't forget the seafarers who keep global deliveries going

At this very moment, there are 1.2 million seafarers out at sea, spread across around 65,000 ships. This floating population has been central in ensuring the maintenance of global trade. Even as the coronavirus has forced entire countries indoors and brought economies to their knees, these seafarers have made sure that food, medicine, fuel and other essential items have made their way into our homes.

They are the unsung heroes of global trade and some of the most common nationalities among them are Filipino, Chinese and Indian. The Philippines alone accounts for well over 200,000 seafarers. Asia is uniquely important to the health of global trade, so it is important that its governments understand the nature of the threat facing our supply chains.

Global trade is not forgiving. We operate a "just in time" delivery system in which shipping plays a key part.

The process begins only when the customer has placed the order, and inventory stock is delivered only when it is needed. This approach has revolutionised global trade, but it has made us vulnerable at the same time. The margins are now slim and there is no time to waste. If one link in the "just in time" chain is removed or damaged, the chain falls apart.

Seafarers are the vital link in ensuring this works. Before the pandemic, 100,000 of them "crew changed" each and every month. At ports around the world, seafarers would embark on and disembark from ships to replace other seafarers or return home to their families and friends. Without the ability to crew change, the "just in time" model is put under considerable strain.

The emergence and rapid spread of Covid-19 have forced governments to adopt measures that have had undesirable consequences. In the Asia-Pacific alone, countries including China, India, Vietnam, New Zealand and Australia have banned all non-residents from setting foot on their soil. Others, such as Japan, have suspended visa waivers and imposed quarantines on new arrivals. Entire cities are on effective lockdown.

But if people cannot travel, or if travel restrictions are in place, then waiting crews cannot board ships entering ports, nor can disembarking crews travel home. The result of this is that crew change has slowed abruptly and is coming to a shuddering halt now.

The only response currently available has been to extend seafarers' term limits at sea. Though seafarers are used to spending up to at least six months at sea at a time, they cannot stay there indefinitely. And continuing to extend terms rather than find a viable solution to the problem not only threatens the personal health of these seafarers but also increases the likelihood of marine accidents.

The industry is responding. The International Chamber of Shipping has announced that it will be working with the International Air Transport Association to identify practical solutions to this problem. Airliners need passengers and we need to move 100,000 seafarers safely around the world each and every month.

Since four of the world's 10 busiest air routes are between Asean member states, and since most of the seafaring population is of Asian nationality, this is an area where they can show leadership. But any industry plan needs the support of governments to enable the proposal to happen.

There are encouraging signs: Singapore, for instance, has said it will allow crew changes in "special circumstances". Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has underlined the importance of Asia working together to tackle the virus, recently saying at the Special Asean Summit that "Asean should collaborate to keep trading routes and supply lines open".

More than ever, we now need Asian governments to be exemplars of best practice. The governments of Asia, whose populations are the lifeblood of the global shipping industry, can show leadership to end this ongoing and intensifying crisis should crew change fail to be addressed.

First, all governments must redefine professional seafarers and marine personnel, regardless of nationality, as "key workers providing an essential service", and grant them appropriate exemptions from restrictions on travel so they can join and leave ships.

Second, these governments can identify the ports and airports within their countries where crew changes can take place and inform both the shipping regulator, the International Maritime Organisation, and the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

And if Asia's governments can take these important steps, others will follow suit. They can act to maintain the functioning of the "just in time" delivery mechanism, and ensure the well-being of populations and seafarers.

The world will be watching. On May 1, we are calling on ships across the world to sound their horns when in port at noon local time, in a salute to our seafarers, but also as a message to governments across the world.

It has been said many times that the crisis in which we find ourselves is a uniquely human one, and one that only people can solve. Nowhere does that seem more relevant now than in world shipping.

• Esben Poulsson is chairman of the International Chamber of Shipping, the London-based association representing approximately 80 per cent of the world's fleet. He is also executive chairman of Enesel, a Singapore-based commercial management and ship-owning entity.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2020, with the headline Don't forget the seafarers who keep global deliveries going. Subscribe