Update: On Thursday, July 9, a dozen countries including the U.S. committed to helping stranded sailors return home, as well as to designating sailors as key workers, which will give them international travel privileges so they can get to and from work. Many more countries need to sign on to make the system work, as sailors come from dozens of nations.
When the coronavirus began spreading around the world countries large and small instituted travel bans, with many ending international travel. Most countries gave people a window of time that allowed them to get where they wanted to be before the actual lockdown, which helped many tourists, students, and traveling businessmen get back home.
But not sailors.
Ship crews spend weeks or even months onboard as they deliver everything from oil to grain to countries around the world. They can’t just stop working, as 90% of global trade travels by boat. We need these people on the job. The problem is, those who were on the job when the lock downs started are still on the job because countries won’t allow replacement crew members, who come from around the world, to travel to their ports. And even if replacement crew could get to the boats, in many instances the existing crew wouldn’t be able to travel home.
This situation has stranded almost 200,000 sailors onboard freighters and other carriers for months, and for many there’s no end in sight. In addition to sheer boredom and the lack of visibility of their future, the crews often lack medical care, leaving their officers to handle whatever comes up, even dental emergencies.
Boysen, captain of the Emma Maersk, who had to do emergency dental work, said:
“I got medical advice, and then I pulled the teeth out. It felt almost like a war situation.”
The International Maritime Organization has called the situation a “humanitarian crisis” and maritime welfare charities have warned of an increase in suicides by seafarers. Last month, Pope Francis paid tribute to the stranded seafarers in a special video message, saying they were “not forgotten”.
Boysen and others want immigration and shipping authorities to exempt seafarers from lockdown measures to ensure crews can be changed and supply chains protected. But even at 200,000 people, there simply aren’t enough of them for anyone to take up their cause.
The next time you buy something from overseas, which includes most any gadget or device, consider that it was delivered by a group of sailors who aren’t allowed to go home.