Friday, June 12, 2020

Financial and Mental Pressures Weigh Heavily on Stranded Seafarers as Lockdown Continues

Survey Highlights Concerns as Video Log Launched
Shipping News Feature

WORLDWIDE – Concern continues to grow for the tens of thousands of seafarers who are still unable to repatriate back to their family homes, and for those who are unable to reach their vessels and are therefore not being paid during the pandemic.

Two industry stakeholders have both been doing their best to understand the nature of the problems and, in their own way, attempt to ameliorate the situation. Charity Stella Maris has studied the major concerns affecting the sailors whilst insurance groups American Club and Eagle Ocean Marine (EOM) are working to improve their mental health.

A recent survey conducted by global maritime charity Stella Maris showed putting food on the table, paying household bills and loans and ensuring job security are among the top concerns faced by seafarers as they cope with the impact that Covid-19 is having on their lives and that of their families. A total of 363 seafarers ranging from deck officers to ABs and engine crew responded to Stella Maris’ questionnaire, the majority being from the Philippines.

Providing food for extended family members was the most urgent need, and it will be even more pressing in the next few months when emergency relief goods stop being provided, and personal savings deplete. Paying for school uniforms, supplies and tuition fees was also identified as being critical over the next few months as schools start to reopen.

The survey revealed that the cost of putting food on the table was between US$200 to US$400 a month depending on the number of people in a seafarer’s extended family, while it cost about US$200 a month for school uniforms and supplies. Around 40% of respondents were forking out US$400 a month to repay loans taken out to buy property or vehicles.

Asked what their most urgent need would be in the next six months to a year, the majority of seafarers said it was to secure a new contract and go back to work.Stella Maris global coordinator Father Bruno Ciceri who commissioned the report said:

“Being on the frontline in ports, our chaplains and volunteers realised straightaway the very real and immediate impact the pandemic is having upon seafarers and fishers with no source of income and stranded in foreign nations or even in their own country.

“With many ports locked down, and seafarers not allowed to go ashore, Stella Maris chaplains and volunteers changed the way we work moving to ‘virtual chaplaincy’ and, where it is still possible, from visiting ships to carrying out ‘gangway visits’ providing care packages and support to crews.

"As the situation continues to evolve, Stella Maris seeks to work with all partners trying to support these developing needs of the seafarer, and ensure that they are not adversely or unfairly treated through their service to others through this pandemic”.

The charity is also being made aware of stigma and fear surrounding seafarers when they return home to rural communities in Southern Asia, that they are ‘bringing the disease with them’ and being treated as pariahs, leading to distress, fear and depression for them and their families and, as countries move on from the initial phase of the pandemic, Stella Maris is beginning to see a new wave of issues affecting seafarers. In particular, there are increasing concerns around mid-to long-term financial, physical and mental health.

This last is being addressed by American Club and Eagle Ocean Marine (EOM) which have made available key advice on maintaining seafarers’ mental health via a video log (Vlog). Using the most accessible and expressive of channels of communication to deliver its advice the ‘Seafarer Mental Wellness - Five Things the Industry Can Do Now’ Vlog is presented by the Club’s Managing Director in Hong Kong, Chris Hall in an attempt to bring clarity and relevance to the current situation. He said:

“The crucial aspect of ameliorating the plight of many seafarers suffering from depression and anxiety is a clear understanding of the problem and taking straightforward and effective action. Even before the pandemic took hold, an ITF survey, in collaboration with Yale University, identified that 20% to 25% of seafarers were suffering from some form of mental ill-health. Covid delays in crew changes have been well documented. Unexpected extensions to contracts and voyages have exacerbated the problem.

”This was the primary reason, the same survey concluded, for higher levels of anxiety and depression. Practical engagement with our owners and the crew members who work with them in response to critical issues has always been the approach of the American Club and EOM. We hope the preparation of this Vlog, and others that we plan for the future, given the face-to-face nature of the information delivery that it affords, will help bring more effective care for seafarers in the future.”

The Vlog contains five key actions, which start with simple recognition of the situation, without which nothing effective can be achieved, and goes on to proffer advice on prioritising the provision of assistance to crew members through counselling; encouraging on-board social activity, communication and mutual understanding; widespread adoption of anti-virus best practice to engender a sense of control; and consultation with seafarers in preparing mental wellness policies and programs. Joe Hughes, Chairman & CEO Shipowners Claims Bureau, Inc., Managers for the American Club, commented:

“Already of major concern to those involved in the shipping industry, the condition of seafarers’ mental well-being has become more critical during the Covid-19 pandemic. Since the outbreak of the pandemic we, at the American Club and Eagle Ocean Marine, have attempted to bring the need for action to the attention of owners, managers and authorities alike. We expressed our, as well as our Members’ and business partners’ support for all mariners through our ‘Weathering the Storm’ video last month, and now want to inject some practical advice into what has become a global, industry-wide campaign.”

The Mental Health Vlog can be accessed HERE and the American Club is also providing constantly up-dated advice to its Members and those insured by EOM on issues related to the Covid-19 pandemic. This addresses a variety of concerns that owners have expressed including the welfare and protection of their workforce. The dedicated webpage can be accessed HERE.

Photo: Still Smiling. Stella Maris port chaplain Monica Döring is working together with her colleagues in Hamburg at Duckdalben Seafarers Centre and the German Seamans’ Mission to ensure seafarers aren't forgotten during this time.