India’s surging second wave of COVID-19 infections has dealt a hard blow to the global shipping industry as India is one of the largest suppliers of crew. The sudden surge in coronavirus infections and a shortage of vaccines have left ship workers high and dry.
Global ports, according to DW, are now slamming doors on Indian crew and vessels. Companies are insisting on vaccinated workers and seafarers. And this spells bad news for an already stretched maritime sector.
Sheikh Karim, a seafarer from Odisha, told DW that he’s been trying repeatedly to find a slot on a designated government website for a COVID-19 vaccine in his home city of Balasore, but to no avail. “I don’t know when I’ll get the first dose of the vaccine. It’s frustrating because I see jobs advertised for cargo ships and tankers which pay in dollars,” Karim said. “Living costs are rising and there are additional health care and hospital expenses for my family and relatives who are getting COVID.” For the time being, the 27-year-old has found employment as a mechanic in an automobile workshop.
There are thousands and thousands of seafarers like Karim, who are struggling to make ends meet amid the second wave. They are unable to get out of the country. Moreover, shipping authorities have advised Indian crew currently at sea to desist from signing off from the vessel until the situation improves.
Abdulgani Serang, general secretary of the National Union of Seafarers in India, told DW the main issue is that seafarers have been designated as essential workers, both nationally and in several other countries. “This means the government should be giving them vaccinations on priority. But that is not happening in India.” Serang said maritime authorities had set up dedicated vaccination facilities for seafarers in port hospitals in cities like Mumbai, Kolkata and Kochi. “But the main problem is that the vaccines are simply not available.”
India’s estimated 240,000 seafarers is predominantly between the ages of 18 and 45, an age group that was supposed to receive Indian-made vaccines – Covishield and Covaxin, from May 1. But, a shortage of doses has forced authorities in many states to postpone the jabs. “Unvaccinated Indian seafarers are now at a disadvantage compared to people of other nationalities who could fill their jobs, for example Indonesians or Chinese who have received priority vaccinations in their own countries,” Serang highlighted. “There is no blanket ban on Indian crews, but ship owners are worried about taking them.”
Furthermore, ports in Singapore and Fujairah in the UAE have barred ships from changing crew members who have recently traveled from India. This has made it difficult for seafarers to be relieved at the end of their contract periods.