As the COVID-19 second wave is spreading rapidly in India, Indian seafarers have been hit particularly hard. As the pandemic is affecting civilians at a higher rate than before, most of the international ports have started listing Indian seafarers on a no-hire list. Up until now, Indian trade (both import and export) was not affected much, but if the situation does not improve in the next 2-3 months, trade-in India, especially cargo trade, will suffer.
Many big contributors to the maritime sector, including Singapore, Fujairah, the United Kingdom, and the United States, have barred ships and crew changes from India, including those who were recently onshore in India. Many of them have also refused Indian seafarers' entry. Abdulgani Serang [General Secretary, National Union of Seafarers of India (NUSI)], reaffirmed this when he claimed that, Indian seafarers are currently in a very critical situation.
Terrors from the upcoming triple mutant COVID-19 strain have also gripped several countries, prompting them to choose Filipino and Indonesian seafarers over Indians. India, which provides nearly 10% of officer-level staff, is considered the world's biggest supplier of seafarers, along with the Philippines and China. Indian shipping firms are the only hope left for the Indian seafarers at this stage, as Indian flagged vessels have no choice but to employ Indian crew. However, this may be the start of a downward spiral for Indian seafarers, as they are foreseen to lose employment.
The maritime industry was never at a pause, despite the presence of the pandemic globally. It added nearly 25000 new seafarers in 2020.
"The impact of this will be felt in the coming days when cargoes that are about to reach their destination won’t find the necessary crew. The export of every product from India is likely to be affected in the near future. ", said Arun Garodia [ Vice-chairman, Engineering and Export Promotion Council (EEPC)]
Imports of goods have remained unaffected so far, thanks to the government's expedited clearance of goods, which is ensuring the demand for medical requisites and pharmaceuticals is fulfilled. The majority of the medical supplies were transported by foreign ships, which did not necessitate the deployment of Indian personnel. As a result, there will be little effect on the medical and pharmaceutical freight sectors.
Addressing the problems, experts from the industry have opted out of pushing the vaccination procedure of the Indian crew at a faster rate, as the only solution. The same feelings were expressed by Serang, who previously spoke in support of prioritizing vaccination on seafarers and ratifying IMO guidelines mentioning the same. Strange had said that they had requested the government to categorize seafarers as frontline workers to facilitate faster vaccinations but the government didn’t agree to it.
Meanwhile, industry experts have been pushing for speedy vaccination of Indian seafarers, highlighting it’s the only solution now. Even Serang echoed the same sentiments when he had spoken in favor of adopting the IMO guideline of vaccinating seafarers as a priority. Strange claimed that they had requested the government to declare seafarers as the frontline workers ( essential workers) to make the vaccinations faster, but the government didn’t comply with it.
While the portal of registration is now open for the age group 18 to 45 to get vaccinated, the shortage of vaccines is preventing the seafarers, majorly falling in this age group, from having the vaccines. The center not being aware of the number of vaccines available on the market is a matter of shame. Amitabh Kumar (DG Shipping), while speaking about the vaccine problems, highlighted this whole issue.
Indonesia and the Philippines, on the other hand, have reaped the rewards of their seafarers' early vaccines. As of now, the government has responded to the entire issue by stating that they have partnered with port hospitals in Kolkata, Mumbai, and Kochi to provide vaccinations to every seafarer traveling over the next 60 days.