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COVID-19 Pandemic Shows Mariners Are Essential Workers, Experts Say

Daniel Murphy, a deck cadet with United States Merchants Marine, supervises as cargo is transported into the Green Cove with equipment being sent to the Distribution Management Office Yermo, Calif., on July 6 at Naha Port in Okinawa, Japan. MSC Photo

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted why mariners – from ferry crews to masters of Triple E-class container ships – are “essential workers,” while questioning future shipbuilding and threatening the survival of smaller shipping companies, two experts in maritime commerce told USNI News.

Joshua Tallis, lead author of CNA’s “Adrift: COVID-19 and the Safety of Seafarers,” said the closing of ports across the globe to stop the spread of infection had the most immediate impact on seafarers, tankers and container ships. In the cruise industry, he said much of the attention initially was on the condition of the passengers as those vessels were kept from landing. But Tallis added that the impact was also felt across the entire maritime transportation industry — ferries, fisheries and workers on off-shore rigs.

While cargoes were unloaded in a day as crews remained aboard and cruise ship passengers were eventually landed, Sal Mercogliano, an associate professor of history at Campbell University, the question of how to repatriate crew if there were no containers or petroleum to move and no cruise passengers to carry became “an immense logistical problem” for shippers and cruise companies.

For the cruise industry, Tallis said that meant using their ships to take crew members back to their respective countries. Then the ships were laid up. For the large companies owning container carriers and tankers, it meant that in many cases, chartering airplanes to fly their crews back to their home countries — Ukraine, the Philippines, Vietnam — but not their residences often hundreds of miles away. Smaller companies struggled over how to stay alive financially as vessels continued at sea for more than a year.

International Maritime Organizations call for rotating crew members every 11 months.

Tallis said this whole process demonstrated the need to knock down travel and visa barriers, increase transparency of how mariners are treated by operators and reevaluate port access rules. In his presentation at the Canadian Maritime Conference and in the interview, Mercogliano said that when COVID-19 restrictions began to fall into place from China across the globe, they directly affected about one million mariners on 60,000 large cargo ships.

What was happening economically in global trade was a “one-two punch,” Mercogliano said. “There was the initial slowdown” that caused global trade to plummet as manufacturing shut down first in China. As the manufacturing shutdown spread, the demand for energy products to keep plants operating, businesses open and people moving to and from work fell accordingly. There was a slowing of demand across the board as all commerce slowed and workers lost jobs.

Tallis described the economic impact of the shutdown as much greater and with longer-lasting effects than the Great Recession of 2008-2009.

“Now, there’s been an uptick in orders,” Mercogliano said. Tallis added: “part of it is online ordering, like Amazon.” Both agreed that this backlog of demand requires maritime shipping to move goods to market. American consumers and manufacturers “are trying to get ahead of another slowdown,” Mercogliano said. On the manufacturing side, he cited the build-up of auto parts being shipped to the United States so plants no longer rely on “just-in-time” delivery.

What’s happening now is some mariners “are stuck on their vessels,” admittedly earning more because they are working to meet pent-up demand, “but their relief is stuck on the beach” unable to travel to the new pick-up point – like Cape Town, South Africa – or even to reach large transportation hubs in their own countries. “If you’re on the beach you’re not making money,” Mercogliano, who worked at Military Sealift Command, said.

“We’re still feeling it out where you’re going to get mariners from,” he added.

Mercogliano said the “gangways up order” in Military Sealift Command illustrated the problem of keeping its civilian mariners aboard for prolonged periods of time while contractors and military personnel are allowed to leave. This was the case even if the ship was in a port where most of the MSC crew lived. “They were used to port calls, visits to their families,” he said.

“Mariners need to access ports of call” for their physical and mental well-being, said Tallis.

At the same time, the shipping industry is consolidating and operating in larger and larger ports, removed from major cities. Tallis said the benefit to consolidation is the companies’ new political heft, which also causes them to address issues like the pandemic more seriously.

The downside, Mercogliano said, is “the feeder companies are having difficulties” finding cargo to move regionally to survive. Larger firms like Maersk, which is a vertically-integrated logistics company, are buying the feeder companies. He noted an exception are American regional companies like Matson -operating between Hawaii, Guam and the continental United States – covered by Jones Act protections for domestic carriers.

No matter the size of the corporation owning the vessels or whether the definition of seafarer extended to off-shore oil workers, all these businesses were searching for the “most effective” means of “stopping infection from coming aboard,” Tallis said. In the case of the large cargo and tanker vessels, he noted that unlike USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), if someone tests positive, the crew size provides redundancy to keep operating. On civilian ships, “there’s no depth [20 to 30 crew] — if they get sick. They’re older and more susceptible” to COVID-19 infection than Navy sailors.

Testing before boarding — harbor pilots, technicians, and new crew; masking in tight spaces are steps the cargo and tanker vessels are employing. There also are changes in where new crew members board – California rather than Hawaii or Yokohama.

As for other effects of the pandemic, Mercogliano noted there is a back order of new vessels and what the effect of that will be on shipyards globally. That could also impact new fuel standards.

The pandemic is “pushing technological change — re-looking and re-examining” maritime industry, he said.