Competent and available medical assistance is essential to any individual, though particularly so for seafarers who become sick or injured while aboard a vessel.
Under normal circumstances, such medical care must be prepared to handle a variety of illnesses and injuries that might befall a seaman during their work. Since the mass transmission of COVID-19, however, medical care has been required to “ramp up”, especially in assisting working seamen.
Since the start of the pandemic, however, the UN special agency International Maritime Organization (“IMO”) has been made aware of incidents where seafarers have been denied the right to go ashore for medical treatment, including several who are battling life-threatening illnesses or profound injuries. Following their receipt of such tragedies, IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim officially endorsed a set of guidelines for shipowners and ports to follow in accommodating seamen’s medical needs during the recent pandemic.
These recommendations are designed to answer specific questions regarding coronavirus exposure and ensuring safe and hospitable transfer of seamen to shore for medical assistance. They include details on common symptoms to monitor prior to disembarkation, effective isolation of suspect and/or confirmed cases, proper use of protective equipment, and plans for minimizing exposure during disembarkation and transfer to a land-based medical facility.
Secretary-General Lim recommended all IMO member states put these recommendations into practice, enforce them diligently, and share them with the appropriate national agencies.
Lim emphasized the value that seamen bring and praised their efforts during the past few months: “Seafarers are at the heart of everything IMO does. In the darkest hours of the pandemic, they have been selflessly delivering the goods we all need. But their own health and wellbeing are as important as that of anyone else. Now is time for governments around the world to deliver for seafarers, by ensuring they can access medical care without delay, whenever they need it.”
IMO also reiterated its recommendation that port states enforce the necessary industry guidelines on seafarer repatriation and crew change. Such protocols implore the governments of these states to designate all seamen as “key workers” and facilitate timely crew change movements.
While a select number of port states have made substantial efforts to facilitate such crew changes, hundreds of thousands of seafarers remain stranded on various vessels, including many who have been working several months beyond their original contracts, without alleviation. Their reliefs are similarly constrained to their homes, unable to join their ships and unable to perform the necessary work.