EYESHENZHEN  /   Opinion

Seamen's pandemic plight should not be ignored

Writer: Lin Min  |  Editor: Jane Chen  |  From: Shenzhen Daily  |  Updated: 2020-06-29

After several months floating at sea, unable to leave the Costa Venezia due to the pandemic, 310 Chinese sailors landed and disembarked in Shekou on Thursday.

Cruise line crews are one of several professions hit hardest by the novel coronavirus. After passengers have headed home, many crew members are stranded on cruise ships, which have virtually become floating prisons, as around the globe travel restrictions for prolonged periods make it difficult for them to disembark and travel home.

Local Chinese-language media outlets described the disembarkation of the Costa Venezia sailors as a homecoming, because the cruise ship made news in Shenzhen back in January, when fears of an outbreak aboard rattled the city as it returned to Shekou on Jan. 26 after a six-day cruise to Da Nang, Vietnam.

At that time Shenzhen authorities allowed 4,973 passengers to disembark the cruise after extensive onboard medical checkups, and several passengers who had fever tested negative for coronavirus. The 148 passengers who were from high-risk areas were also released from medical observation after a 14-day quarantine.

Shenzhen's handling of the cruise ship, which involved hundreds of government staff, medics and community workers, at the peak of the epidemic in China won praise by passengers and news media for being efficient and accommodative.

While the Costa Venezia has suspended operation since all passengers disembarked and it left Shekou in late January, its crew members remained stuck on board as the epidemic spiraled into a pandemic and continued to ravage the world.

When the cruise docked again at Shekou port Thursday, the Costa Venezia crew hung a banner saying "Thank you" to express their gratitude to the help from Shenzhen during the two dockings amid the pandemic.

The Shekou Cruise Homeport received a request from the Costa Venezia to call the port in early June. The cruise ship was allowed to dock Thursday. The sailors disembarked after they tested negative for the virus that causes COVID-19 and will be allowed to go home after completing their quarantine.

While other countries are now allowing cruise crew to disembark under certain conditions, various travel restrictions and lack of international flights mean their journeys home still won't be easy.

Cruise line crews are not the only ones who suffer. Seamen working for cargo ships face a similar, or worse, plight. About 250,000 mariners are now stuck in cargo vessels on the high seas, according to The Economist. Most merchant seamen are from developing countries and work on short-term contracts. Their labor contracts start when the cargo ship departs, and are terminated when the ship arrives at the destination port. Many of them not only are left with no pay since their contracts ended upon the unloading of goods, but also are unable to disembark and return home. Even worse, being stuck on board, they still have to pay for food, Internet connection and other daily necessities.

In May, the International Maritimes Organization published a protocol for safe crew turnovers during the pandemic, aiming to facilitate seamen to return home as soon as possible after their journey ends. However, few countries are following the guidelines.

Seamen are essential workers that keep the world running. Around 1.2 million merchant seamen are working in the seas every day helping to transport almost everything we need in our lives to different parts of the world from where they are produced or grown. Countries around the world should work together to find a solution to end their plight as soon as possible, as the pandemic is here to stay at least for a while. Although, in terms of numbers, they are a minority group compared to many other professions, their wellbeing should not be ignored.

Shenzhen's handling of the Costa Venezia's two disembarkations has set a good example for allowing passengers and crews to leave the ship as quickly as possible while ensuring the disembarkations do not pose a health threat to the public.

(The author is a deputy editor-in-chief of Shenzhen Daily.)