Sergei M. Smirnov
Admiral Nevelskoy Maritime State University, Vladivostok

Abstract: Maritime industry was among the first to be impacted by COVID-19 pandemic. Operating in the complicated environment of border closures, abolition of air traffic and other quarantine restrictions, the industry, nevertheless, continued to perform rather successfully its functions of transporting more than 80% of international trade cargo. However, many serious problems, primarily those related to the replacement of crewmembers and compliance with the requirements of international conventions, have not yet been resolved. The unbalancing of the world economy and gradual development of the global supply chain crisis complicate the situation. This has led to a skyrocket increase in the freight costs and very soon will seriously affect the well-being of the entire population.

Keywords: COVID-19 pandemic, crew replacement, psycho- emotional fatigue, IMO, WHO, key workers providing an essential service

When it all just began, at the end of January 2020, no one in the world could have guessed what the outbreak of one more, seemingly quite ordinary zoonotic virus that causes an acute respiratory disease somewhere in Wuhan, China would result in. Today, almost two years later, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed problems and flaws in many areas of human civilization. There are no effective recipes for overcoming the crisis, comparable in scale of damage to a full-fledged war of attrition.

The above fully applies to the field of maritime activities, and especially in Asia-Pacific. This article attempts to analyze the damage caused to the industry by the pandemic (more precisely, by the collateral damage caused by the fight with it), and the actions of international organizations aimed at supporting the critical functions performed by maritime transport.

The damage from the pandemic to the maritime industry is usually assessed in two categories:

– Direct: problems with the replacement of crews, violation of the schedules of sea traffic, pinpoint lockdowns in seaports, inability to comply with the provisions of the STCW convention in terms of training and certification of seafarers, etc.;

– Indirect: caused by the general crisis in the system of global logistics (disruptions in global logistics supply chains, shortage of containers, etc.), as well as the remote consequences of the impact of direct damage factors, for example, resigning of crew personnel and an increase in the threat of navigational accidents due to increased psycho-emotional fatigue [1]. However, it is difficult to draw a clear line between the two categories.

There are also factors that, being detrimental to the global macroeconomics, at the same time bring tangible immediate benefits to the enterprises of the maritime industry. For example, a sharp increase in the cost of freight allows major industry players to build up a portfolio of orders for new ships and finance expensive programs for decarbonization, digitalization, etc., at the expense of shippers and consignees.

The maritime industry is one of the most globalized in the world, which is operating in the competitive environment of a real market economy. The crews of overseas vessels are multinational; FOC registration and complex charter schemes are often used. The work of seafarers is strictly regulated by international conventions. Under normal conditions, this increases the competitiveness of the industry, and reduces the cost of transportation. However, when an emergency occurs, many of these factors go from pros to cons. This is probably why the industry saw the potential threat from an outbreak in Wuhan, China well before others.

Below is a little chronology of the initial period.

On January 30, 2020 WHO Director-General declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), WHO’s highest level of alarm. Less than a day after, the IMO circulated its Members, national Governments, with a first warning about a “novel coronavirus” which threatened the existence of seafarers detained at sea or waiting for embarkation on land [2]. IMO together with the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) immediately tried to

establish communication with WHO about the urgent actions to take in this regard. However, WHO had not tried to understand the complexity of this issue. On February 24, 2020 WHO published operational considerations for managing COVID-19 cases and outbreaks on board ships, following the outbreak of COVID-19 during an international voyage. On March 11 a final report by WHO-China commission investigating the roots of the new coronavirus outbreak was published. Though this report was incomplete and left more questions than answers, commenting this document WHO Director-General pulled the trigger by declaring a state of pandemic and hysterically urging countries of the world to follow the China’s drastic quarantine measures [3].

Unfortunately, he was heard. National governments, as if competing with each other, began to hastily close borders, curtail air traffic, introduce a state of emergency and other measures that create the appearance of caring for the population, but in fact destroying the hard-created economic and humanitarian unity of the world community. The seafarers were among the first to be hit.

Of the 1,647.500 seafarers serving on internationally trading merchant ships worldwide, in the mid-2020 almost half were therefore detained as a result of the Pandemic. By comparison, an ICS estimate notes that worldwide during normal circumstances 100,000 seafarers are rotated every month, with 50,000 embarking ships and 50,000 disembarking [4]. Crew changes are also a compliance risk. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO) Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) crew should serve no more than 11 months continuously at sea and are entitled to access onshore medical facilities and care. According to the IMO, COVID-19 has caused many seafarers to serve significantly longer than the 11 months agreed by the ILO. If ships are unable to operate safely in compliance with international rules, vessels may have to suspend their operations [2].

IMO and ICS supported by ILO had to urgently take unilateral actions to save the situation. They distributed on March 27 a Circular with 12 Protocols with detailed recommendations on how to handle the pandemic at sea. Whilst forcefully suggesting that professional seafarers and related marine personnel be designated as ‘key workers providing an essential service’, the purpose of the Circular and Protocols appeared at that stage primarily to

recommend procedures to protect the international supply chain and the world economy at large [4].

IMO wrote many times to its member states urging them to take immediate actions on the national level to solve the seafarer’s repatriation problem, but without notable success. In April 2020, IMO established the Seafarer Crisis Action Team (SCAT) to help resolve individual cases of hardship whilst dealing with thousands of seamen in distress globally. Joined by the ILO, ICS and the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) “SCAT’s humanitarian initiative proved efficient and a welcome success story in what was to become an otherwise grim tale” [4]. Without diminishing the importance of SCAT’s efforts, it should be noted that this organization assists seafarers on an individual case-to-case basis, operates through informal channels and does not have adequate support from national governments.

Meanwhile, WHO continued its strange policy of indecisiveness or bias concerning the primary aspects of countering pandemic. I will name some of them – the development of “immune passports”, testing and vaccination. These aspects directly influenced the already difficult situation in which hundreds of thousands of mariners found themselves far from their homeland.

On April 24, 2020 WHO released a scientific note on the use of “Immune Passports” in the context of COVID-19. This note emphasized that there is currently insufficient evidence of the efficacy of an antibody-mediated immune response to ensure the validity of an “immune passport” or “no-risk certification” and that the use of such certification could increase the risk of further proliferation of infections [5]. Only a year later, WHO approved a uniform methodology for presenting test results for the quantitative determination of antibodies in blood. However, to date, WHO refuses to recognize the results of such tests as a criterion for determining the body’s immune response to COVID-19, giving preference to PCR testing.

It should be noted that, judging by the WHO official reports, the real-time PCR testing (RT-PCR) technique was developed in record time: on January 11, 2020, WHO announced the receipt of genetic sequencing data from China for the new coronavirus, and just two days later published the first protocol of the study by the method of RT-PCR, carried out by European scientists [6]. So PCR

testing has become the de facto world standard in the diagnosis of COVID-19. At the same time, the accuracy of this method is low; it has a large percentage of false positive or false negative responses. However, PCR testing procedure suits healthcare administrators much better due to its relative cheapness (for manufacturers) and ease of use. At the end of 2020, WHO recommended the use of express antigen testing. In terms of status, this type of testing has not risen to RT-PCR level.

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