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Seafarers turning tide of global essential supplies amidst Covid-19 storm

By Emma Seline Akinyi Okello | June 25th 2020
Emma Seline Akinyi Okello, a maritime expert and consultant

As the tide settles on the world shores today, significant men and women of the sea will be celebrating the world’s seafarers day. It will be the 10th anniversary of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) day of the seafarers. Those who reside miles away from the oceans and seas or in landlocked countries may not immediately come to terms with the importance of this day. This is probably because they may not be in the frontline to witness the immense contribution of these men and women of the sea. This year, the IMO dedicates this day of the Seafarer with a call on the Member States to recognize seafarers as key workers – and to provide them with the support, assistance, and travel options open to all key workers during the Covid 19 pandemic.
IMO has thus pushed an online campaign to recognize the contribution of the seafarers to the world’s economy. Under the hashtag #SeafarersAreKeyWorkers, member states are being urged to recognize, honor, and acknowledge these unsung heroes of global trade. These are the men and women who when the call to stay at home was being championed, weathered the daily storms to ensure the global transfer of food and essential commodities were in constant supply.
It is for this reason that the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) together with IMO is calling for governments to designate seafarers as "key workers". This will ensure the facilitation of seamless crew changeover ensuring seafarers and other maritime personnel have access to documentation and travel options so they can return home safely after their tour of duty. This will result in the smooth transport of essential goods during the Covid 19 pandemic. The world’s reliance on maritime transport makes it more important than ever to keep ships moving, ports open and cross-border trade flowing, and to support ship crew changeovers.
The primary way that people celebrate International Day of the Seafarer is by taking to social media to thank and praise sailors for their hard work.  Some people also try to raise awareness about Seafarer's rights on social media. The International Day of the Seafarer has now been officially added to the United Nations' list of observances. It is worth noting that Maritime transport depends on the 2 million seafarers who operate the world’s merchant ships, which carry more than 80 percent of global trade by volume, including most of the world’s food, energy, raw materials and manufactured goods.
Crew changeovers are therefore essential for the continuity of shipping safely and sustainably. It’s estimated that starting in mid-June 2020 as many as 300,000 seafarers a month will require international flights to enable ships’ crew changeover. About half will travel home by aircraft for repatriation while the other half will join ships. And approximately 70,000 cruise ship staff are waiting for their repatriation.
This process is currently hampered by travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But to comply with international safety and employment regulations – and for humanitarian reasons – crew changes can’t be postponed indefinitely. Access to medical care for sick or injured crew and to medical prescriptions must also be provided.
Governments and relevant national and local authorities therefore must recognize that seafarers provide essential services, regardless of their nationality, and should thus exempt them from travel restrictions when in their jurisdiction. Such designation will ensure that the trade-in essential goods, including medical supplies and food, is not hampered by the pandemic and the associated containment measures. IMO emphasizes that for trade to continue during these critical times, there is a need to keep ships moving, ports open, and cross-border trade flowing, while at the same time ensuring that border agencies can safely undertake all necessary controls. The international collaboration, coordination, and solidarity among all is going to be key to overcoming the unprecedented global challenge posed by the pandemic and its longer-term repercussions.
Looking beyond the current situation, UNCTAD and IMO have urged governments to pursue collaborative efforts to identify and remove any unnecessary regulatory obstacles to post-pandemic recovery and to facilitate maritime transport and trade in these difficult times. They encouraged pragmatic approaches, such as granting exemptions and waivers where necessary and appropriate. Efforts should be made to facilitate electronic means for ship-shore, administrative and commercial interactions. There should be effective sharing of pre-arrival information and other COVID-19-related reporting requirements for ships, as well as the provision of adequate equipment and resources to customs and border control stations in ports.
The writer is a maritime expert and consultant

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