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Seafarers, ships sound sirens, seek solutions: Covid-19 threatens to sink global shipping business, workers

Seafarers, ships sound sirens, seek solutions: Covid-19 threatens to sink global shipping business, workers
Jeremaiah m. Opiniano / OFW Journalism Consortium July 30, 2020

Special to the BusinessMirror

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA—Never had Jose Braganza enjoyed such a regal form of solitude within the 39-square meter “Princess Suite.”

Seven pieces of down pillows sit on a king-size bed, which is surrounded by a TV set, a sofa, a refrigerator and a computer table.

Food is served daily by the concierge.

Behind the sliding doors is an 8-square meter balcony with wooden flooring, two chairs and a small table; all caressed by a sea breeze.

The suite is like a “first-class” hotel room, Braganza (not his real name) recalls; “and that room is not even the most expensive.”

It was the first time in his nine years as housekeeping staff for a cruise line that he tasted this kind of luxury. One cruising on a 40-day journey from Tokyo to Melbourne would have had to pay, for use of the suite, $5,599 (P274,773.72) per person. If it’s a 21-day voyage from New Zealand to Tasmania, Australia and back, it would set one back $7,089 (P347,896.22).

After days of temporary opulence, Braganza saw another reason for exhilaration: the mouth of Manila Bay.

The Filipino seafarer was coming home.
Stuck at sea

But his Bermuda-registered ship became dead in the water—as did 30 other cruise ships; and the same thing happened to Filipino crew on those ships and Braganza’s. These vessels are all on beam ends.

The “Princess Suite” was where Braganza’s world got docked.

Like the other 500 Filipino crew who sailed with him from Brisbane last April 7, all Braganza did was watch TV, make audio and video calls on his mobile phone, play video games and . . . wait.

The release of a swab test result prolonged his melancholy inside his opulent “prison.”

That was until Braganza finally boarded a tender boat of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) last May 28. After 54 days, he had finally set foot on dry land at Manila’s international seaport.

Braganza’s now home, in Mandaluyong City.

Free from his previous chamber, Braganza now enjoys driving but is hyper-vigilant behind a face mask. On dry land, the seaman is toiling for another day, earning from delivering food outside doors of office suites.
Engines stopped

ACROSS seas, seafarers, their ships and the global cruise ship industry are manning panic stations like never before. Covid-19 continues to hammer the well-being and economic future of over 400,000 Filipino seafarers in one of the most dramatic episodes on Filipinos’ international labor migration.

With fears of viral transmission, crew change has become slow on open seaports, as what Braganza, his ship and 30 other ships experienced in Manila Bay.

But many international seaports remain shut. Seafarers got stranded while their ships continually drift at sea; with some ships reportedly even abandoned by owners.

Some seafarers whose contracts had expired were paid but others were not after global health authorities declared a pandemic. Bringing these crew home wasn’t something that could be done immediately: as seaports remain barred for crew changes, many airports stay closed for outgoing and incoming international flights.

The lockdowns against the Covid-19 pandemic have turned into a formidable challenge to an industry that has survived the 2016 financial crisis, pirate attacks and outbreaks of a norovirus.

Likewise, Professor Rolando G. Talampas of the University of the Philippines Asian Center said that the economic prospects for the shipping industry are all at sea “due to uncertainties in seaborne world trade.”
An outbreak

BRAGANZA’S vessel didn’t have a confirmed Covid-19 case, be it a crew member or a passenger.

The same can’t be said for 43 cruise lines.

Cruise Mapper, an artificial intelligence website that tracks cruise ships, recorded some 3,069 crew and passengers positive with Covid-19 from January to May.

World Dream, owned by GHK-Dream Cruises, was the first cruise ship with confirmed cases. From January 19 to 24, while it was leaving Guangzhou, China for Vietnam, the first three passengers of the ship’s 12 confirmed Covid-19 cases (all passengers) were logged.

Last January 28, World Dream became the first Covid-19 affected ship to dock at Manila’s international seaport. But the Bureau of Quarantine declared the ship free from what was then called nCOV.

In early February the 16-year-old Diamond Princess was tagged as having the biggest nCOV epidemic outside the epicenter of Wuhan, China.

About 538 crew members of the Diamond Princess are Filipinos, with 80 of them becoming part of the final count of 712 positive passengers and crew. These Filipinos were treated in Japan while 445 Filipino crew members and seven passengers got repatriated by the Philippine Embassy in Tokyo on February 26.

“Cruise ships present a unique environment for transmission of human-to-human…infections,” epidemiologists Joacim Rocklöv, Henrik Sjödin and Annlies Wilder-Smith wrote in their paper on the Diamond Princess for the “Journal of Travel Medicine.”
Fluid movement

THE Diamond Princess has 14 accessible decks or floors, nine restaurants and bars, six lounges, four swimming pools, eight Jacuzzis and 14 elevators. Scattered across those confined spaces are some 3,700 people.

Rocklöv and fellow authors estimated an epidemiologic metric, called the reproduction number (R0, or “R naught”), to determine the extent of a contagion. The R0 inside the Diamond Princess during the first few weeks was a high 14.8.

That figure was four times higher than the R0 in Wuhan at 3.4 last February 25, according to estimates by some Chinese epidemiologists.

Isolation and quarantine measures were implemented on the Diamond Princess from January 21 to February 19. Had there been no interventions, including the abortion of a supposed early evacuation, about 2,920 of the 3,700 passengers and crew would have been infected instead of the eventual 712, Rocklöv’s paper said.

Population density and the mixing of people inside the Diamond Princess “clearly amplified an already highly transmissible disease,” Rocklöv, Sjödin and Wilder-Smith concluded.

Six Japanese researchers, in another paper on the Diamond Princess outbreak, think nCOV “was likely transmitted first from passengers to crew members, and subsequently spread among the crew, especially food service workers.”

Transmission may have likely occurred before the implementation of quarantine measures.
‘Amply demonstrate’

WHAT’S common between Diamond Princess and another Covid-19-stricken ship, the Grand Princess, and with other cruise lines is the number of Filipino crew doing mostly non-marine jobs. The Diamond Princess had 531 Filipino crew (51 percent of the total 1,045 crew). Sister ship Grand Princess had 529 Filipino crew or 48 percent of the 1,111 total.

The Grand Princess case “was an example of (the) perpetuation of transmission from crew members across multiple consecutive voyages, and the potential introduction of the virus to passengers and crew on other ship,” a 51-author team wrote in a March 27 paper, for the “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” by the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention or CDC.

These cases of Covid-19 infection prompted the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) to announce last March 13 a 30-day voluntary suspension of cruise operations in the US. Four days later, the CDC released a “level 3 warning” to defer all cruise travel worldwide.

By May, Covid-19 cases broke out in 43 of the world’s 272 cruise ships. And Filipinos, the world’s largest supplier or merchant marine fleet (especially among ratings and non-marine workers), dominate crew counts.

These cases “amply demonstrate” how a disease outbreak onboard “could threaten so many people at once, and could be mishandled by people untrained to address such emergencies,” Talampas said.
Remaining safe

DOCKED on March 14 in Spain was a cruise ship whose first name means “star of the sea.” The captain announced this on the PA system: “A Filipino, from the bar department, was disembarked from our ship.”

“So please stay inside your cabins,” came the announcement that Henry Torres (not his real name) heard loud and clear.

“I wasn’t surprised there’ll be someone in our ship with the coronavirus,” Torres told the OFW Journalism Consortium while on quarantine at Astrotel in Carriedo, Manila.

“Either the Pinoy crew member got it from a passenger while conversing in that bar, or he or she was coming in-and-out of the ship when it was anchored on a port,” he added.

That unidentified Filipino seafarer with Covid-19 may have been assigned in one of 10 bars of the said cruise ship: The Lounge (on Deck 6), 53 (Deck 5), The Shack (Deck 12), Bar @ The Mediterranean (Deck 11), Indigo Bar and Indigo Club (both on Deck 12), Aperitif (Deck 6), Squid and Anchor (Deck 7), The Broadway Sky Lounge (Decks 6 and 7, with a stage for theatrical performances), and the Pool Bar (Deck 11).

Torres’s quarantine inside a passenger’s cabin began March 14 when his ship anchored at Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Spain. The quarantine ended April 23 when the Malta-flagged cruise ship reached Southampton, United Kingdom, and disembarked its multinational crew there.

The Filipino seafarers took a 2-hour bus ride to London Gatwick Airport, and a Tui Airline flew home the 262 Filipino crew (from two cruise ships) straight to Manila. They arrived last April 24.

Torres, a baker working on the night shift, then got quarantined with 91 other seafarers at Astrotel upon instructions from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA). Swab test results lengthened the 30-year-old’s stay there for over a month.
Eluding danger

“MANY of my fellow seafarers here at Astrotel were tested positive,” Torres recalled. That Friday, May 22, at least 45 seafarers —excluding Torres and 46 others— got their quarantine certificates and checked out from Astrotel.

Torres dodged the unseen enemy while on his cruise ship. He volunteered to join the bakery department to make pastries for the 700-person crew that time. By mid-April, his wife Rebecca bore their first child, a girl.

He came home and eventually tested negative. But the delayed release of both his negative test result and quarantine certificate almost brought Torres to resignation while waiting for “freedom.”

Those of them who were still at Astrotel, Torres said, “have accepted that we will reach old age here.”

“We are in pain given this situation; we have been overthinking.”

April to May was the period when the cruise ships arrived in droves in Manila Bay, bringing home their Filipino crew. PCG personnel would go boat by boat with their Covid-19 testing equipment in tow since boats weren’t allowed to dock at Manila’s international seaport.

That ship-hopping alone took time; so did the testing of other returning sea-based and land-based overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and local Filipinos.

Torres is now home in Porac, Pampanga cuddling his newborn. Thousands of other Filipino seafarers remain either on their ships at the Manila Bay, on the designated local hotels as quarantine centers; or still stranded aboard drifting cruise, tanker and cargo ships —like Torres’s father, aboard a cargo ship.
Report on happiness

SEAFARING is a mentally challenging job by default as one stays on a ship surrounded by a wet desert. But the pandemic sowed “intense pressure and mental and physical fatigue” unto many seafarers, according to Edwin dela Cruz of the nonprofit International Seafarers Action Center (ISAC) Philippines Foundation.

The Christian-run Mission to Seafarers (MtS) releases a quarterly survey called the Seafarers Happiness Index (SHI). In the SHI’s 2020 first quarter report anchored on Covid-19, seafarers told MtS that not enough efforts was done to ensure crew and passengers’ safety on board.

Seafarer-respondents to the online SHI survey felt “physically exhausted, mentally disturbed, homesick and anxious.”

Commonplace trends prior to the pandemic prevailed, such as paid or unpaid work beyond crews’ contract periods, especially since crew changes get constricted by port closures.

While majority of seafarers’ vessels “were safe from the virus,” the problem was “the fear of people coming aboard from ashore.”

“(In) every port the officers and crew are exposed in infection, be it from health department/surveyor/shore crew/pilot/ agent or anyone ashore,” the report said.

The overall average happiness score for that period was 6.30 out of 10, the lowest since the 6.25 average during the fourth quarter of 2017 [see chart]. Dimensions such as “welfare facilities at shore” (score: 5.55), work load (5.69) and shore leave (5.80) posted the lowest average scores that period.
Support, positivity

SINCE Port States understandably focused on the health needs of their nationals, seafarers do not seem to be prioritized —and these merchant marine fleet feel they were “cut adrift from the medical and emotional support they need,” MtS noted.

Seafarers cope by following precautions and sanitizing themselves, but they are being constantly pressured that they may get infected. “This ironically makes them (seafarers) feel even more vulnerable and susceptible to the virus,” MtS added.

Seafarers’ advocacy groups had been helping seafarers confront the usual mental stresses of seafaring. Since 2017, the UK-headquartered charity International Seafarers Welfare and Assistance Network (Iswan) had been receiving calls on SeafarerHelp, its free 24/7 multilingual helpline.

Two multilingual booklets on seafarers’ positive mental health and on their psychological well-being are spreading the online universe to reach as many seafarers.

Nevertheless, mental stress has already been encountered by increasing numbers of seafarers, with Covid-19 heightening how seafarers’ mental conditions may have been left high and dry, Talampas said.
‘Welcome packs’

AUSTRALIAN grade schoolers Mark, Aaliyah, Ashton and Patrick were inserting bookmarks inside plastic containers that are of the same size. Those bookmarks sported a bright kaleidoscope of various colors, with scribbled words from American children’s book author Theodor Seuss: “To the world you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world.”

“Thank you,” each bookmark also writes. “We are thinking of you. Keep safe.”

These volunteer students from Our Lady of the Visitation School in Taperoo suburb here in Adelaide inserted those bookmarks into an “Australiana-themed welcome pack,” fitting the current Oceania winter.

There’s also a beanie (knitted beret), a pen, a Koala key ring, a block of chocolate, a pack of potato chips and a calendar in those welcome packs, which are distributed by the Catholic-run nonprofit Apostleship of the Sea (AOS).

AOS Adelaide’s Stella Maris Center delivered these packs to two ships that had been disallowed from making crew changes and docked on Port Adelaide’s Outer Harbor 8 Terminal.

AOS Adelaide Director Ian Keane said since he couldn’t go up the carrier, so he only gave the packs to one of the seafarers who were allowed to come down.
Economic costs

SOLUTION like those welcome packs have cropped up because the world seems to be shrinking for the shipping industry and its 1.6 million seafarers.

Numerous cruise lines have announced postponements to resuming operations. That’s assuming demand to board these cruise line gets revived since incomes in the developed world got wrecked by the pandemic.

The 2008 to 2009 global economic crisis slowed down global trade in subsequent years, with 90 percent of trade coming from shipping. Importation of goods, as well as prices, dropped. This led to the oversupply of these goods, a drop in freight rates, and diminished demand.

Now with the pandemic, shipping companies big and small got hit hard across supply chains. With production of goods slashed in China, the movement of goods got hit.

Container ships had left their vessels idle in record numbers during the first three months of 2020, say global shipping analysts. Movements of goods on major trade lanes, linking Covid-stricken Europe and North America to China, got slashed.

The continued fluctuations of global oil prices since March are not helping either.
Logistic operations

MARITIME lawyer Dela Cruz believes the post-pandemic scenario will pose problems for 80 percent of the world’s ships that are called “flags of convenience” (FOC). These FOCs are registered in other countries with open registries for foreign vessels, not in the residence country of their owners.

“These FOCs will not be prioritized in the post-Covid rehabilitation of the world economy since these ships do not pay taxes in the country of beneficial ownership,” Dela Cruz said.

Talampas, meanwhile, thinks robotics and artificial intelligence will soon mark logistics operations as a means to cut costs. Even if sizeable investments are needed to buy these technologies, adoption to “industrial revolution 4.0” in global shipping, Talampas thinks, will lead to “investments (that are) much less on seafarers.”

The adjustment here will be the need for maritime fleet as shore workers but not as fleet crew, adds Talampas.
Family time

ENGINE oiler Samuel Simbulan (not his real name) has been waiting since January for his bulk carrier MV Glovis 5 to yank him in for work. But the airport closures had shut Simbulan’s trip plans.

He then got called for another ship but there’s still no update to this day, Simbulan said.

At least, the La Paz, Tarlac resident says, “I have longer bonding time with my pregnant wife Marie and my children.”

Wives’ empathies and children’s smiles have unburdened Braganza, Torres and Simbulan. Family becomes the emotional and economic safety net then of some 43,893 seafarers —part of the 102,519 sea- and land-based overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) repatriated since February up to July 25, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs.

But with the unintended return comes the next problem: money management.
Accounting income

FROM a $1,200 monthly sum, Torres allots his $458 basic pay to his family in Pampanga. The rest is stored on Torres’ OceanPay stored value card.

“I sneaked in some $200 or $300 monthly, for seven months as savings before I got repatriated,” Torres said.

Handling whatever Torres has saved from this last cruise juggles with the financial demands of a 4-month-old newborn with his wife who works as a saleslady for a department store.

Simbulan’s wife is due in two months. Since mid-March, the couple had been judiciously spending their budget on essentials. The couple can’t push the boat out like years ago and spend lavishly when their dollars come.

They are “talking with each other on how much to spend and for what expense matters,” Simbulan tells the OFW Journalism Consortium.

Still, Simbulan wishes that the pandemic’s wrath on seafarers’ livelihoods does not drag on longer: “More pitiful (“mas kawawa”) are those seafarers who haven’t saved as much.”
Remittances, ratings

IF seafarers were able to save, say in the five years (2015-2019) preceding today’s pandemic, mostly officers and very seldom ratings would have done so, Talampas said.

Filipino seafarers’ remittances the past decade have been a $75.79 billion juggernaut coming from just over 449,463 sea-based OFWs, and even if they’re on just eight-to-ten month contracts.

But economists and market analysts have projected lower remittances from overseas Filipinos, including seafarers, this year. Comparing the first four months of this pandemic year to a similar four-month period in 2019, seafarers had sent some $2.113 billion thus far (some $28.468 million less year-on-year).

Filipino seafarers were mostly made up of ratings, says 2006 data from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA). But 11 years later (in the latest available POEA data on seafarers by category), there are now more seafarers doing non-marine jobs (185,375) over ratings (163,903) given the growth of the cruise ship industry.

Officers (2017: 100,185) dwarf in numbers even with continued demand for these ship officers.
Exposing problems

THE pandemic had also exposed the usual problems of seafarers like contractualization, says Dela Cruz. But as the pandemic drags on, the shipping industry’s players are hand over fist to speedily bounce back leading up to the “new normal.”

Some ships have been sent to scrap yards to save costs. Some smaller shipping companies have even sold their firms to competitors with deeper pockets.

Boldly, German liner AIDA Cruises (owned by Carnival Cruises) will resume voyages this August 5 through three domestic routes in Germany. Enhanced medical protocols, reduced passenger capacity and disallowing port visitations will mark this return by the lines AIDAPerla, AIDAmar and AIDAblu.

However, just last July 24, ten crew of AIDA Cruises were tested positive —some two days after around 750 Filipino and Indonesian crew arrived in Rostock, Germany as AIDA’s three lines are anchors aweigh amid Covid-19.

But many cruise line companies are not only moving back their resumption of cruises. Some others, like Cruise & Maritime Voyages, have closed operations.

Some container ships are returning to drop off goods in some regions, says a newly-released Port Economic Impact Barometer Report. Oil tanker owners hope demand for oil picks up again, as the voyages of these ships depend on that.
Sailing forward

MORNINGS at 4 are the “new normal” for Braganza and wife Grace. Some 25 to 30 “styro packs” fill the Braganzas’ dining table; the kitchen’s up and running.

Cooking tapsilog and tocilog meals have been breaking Braganza’s morning solitude since mid-June. The packed meals are for the officemates of Grace, and for a nearby office, both in Pasay City.

“Profit’s huge” for a day: the range is from P1,625 to P2,250. A pack’s breakfast costs P65 to P75. When cooking’s finished and Grace completes her breakfast, Braganza steers the wheel to bring his wife and the packed meals to her workplace.

A sister in Real, Quezon also delivers crabs, shrimp and Lapu-Lapu to Braganza. He sells these via mobile and online orders. A kilo of shrimp for tempura costs P400.

You have to think of how to earn nowadays, Braganza said. Of course, he’s awaiting a call from his cruise company.

Many Filipino seafarers are waiting for those next calls to sail past this pandemic. They and their vessels and ship owners continue to sound sirens across seas, seeking immediate solutions while sailing over the raging waves of Covid-19.

“If I were not strong (matatag),” the 33-year-old cruise housekeeping staff says, “I would have jumped ship.”