Seafarers and COVID-19: ICS webinar

Dec 17 2020

The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) reviewed how COVID-19 is affecting seafarers and how the industry might find better ways to influence government, with a webinar on Sept 9, with senior speakers from EuroNav, PTC Holdings, ILO, ICS and DNV GL.

The shipping industry has had big problems with seafarers unable to get home from vessels during the Covid-19 period. In early September, there were 300,000 seafarers estimated to be unable to get home from vessels due to travel restrictions.

“Shipping has been at the heart of a humanitarian crisis,” said Esben Poulsson, chair of ICS and chair of the webinar. “Despite strenuous efforts, which resulted in convening of ministerial summits, intervening of the United Nations secretary general, a message from the Pope himself. None of this has been sufficient to resolve this crisis.” 

“We must ask ourselves, why is shipping not heard - and how can we change that? How can we build global relationships that deliver, and ensure we can learn the lessons?” 

He was speaking at a webinar organised by the International Chamber of Shipping on Sept 9, “Shipping 2020 – Analysis of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic”.

The root cause of government’s lack of willingness to help may be the secretive culture of the industry, said Hugo De Stoop, CEO, EuroNav, Belgium. For years the industry has tried “to be in the shadows, to be discrete, to be forgotten.”

The reason for that is that “nobody wanted to pay tax, nobody wanted to be heavily regulated.”

But as a result, the industry is represented in international discussions by very small countries - small flag states. They do not have large economic clout at the United Nations, he said. “You cannot come to the UN and claim something if you don't represent economically anything.”

“That is something which needs to be changed. I believe it will be gradually changed. “

“There's a lot of private companies populating the shipping world, people prefer to say ‘discrete.’”

But such discrete companies do not talk about what they do in times of normal business. 

“The result is that when people hear about shipping, they only hear about the bad things,” he said. 

On the positive side, we have seen “unprecedented level of co-operation” during the period, Mr De Stoop said.

“The main reason is that we are in a crisis. Did we have any other choice but to cooperate?  I don't think so. People when facing a crisis do behave in different ways. Let's just hope whatever level of cooperation can be maintained for the future.”


Guy Ryder, ILO

Guy Ryder, Secretary General, International Labour Organization, Switzerland, agreed “the international community has done a very bad job in responding to this global crisis.”

“What we've seen is an accumulation of national responses to a global crisis.”

And with rising geopolitical tensions, there is “not much appetite for global co-operation” at the moment, he said. 

A complication is that the pandemic involved different parts of government, as it “mutated from a health crisis to a socioeconomic crisis to a humanitarian crisis.” 

The people in various national governments responsible for maritime affairs may not be closely linked to the decision makers around Covid, often in health departments. 

The industry showed itself to be lacking in the right relationships with the right government organisations to get problems resolved, he said.  “You haven’t been able to produce the political reaction.” 

We have also seen that countries are reluctant to act on behalf of other countries’ nationals. Mr Ryder was invited as an observer to a G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in early September, discussing movement of people across boundaries. But the discussion was nearly all about tourism – there was only one reference to seafarers, by a representative from India. 

We may need governments to consider how their nationals would be affected by disruption to their supply chains caused by a troubled maritime industry, he said. 

“This crisis should have cleared away our illusions about a benevolent attitude of government towards international obligations. They will divest themselves of obligations very quickly when they feel there is an interest in doing so and their local population will agree to it,” he said.

“We have to find ways to apply a bit of heat to non-responsive government,” he suggested. For example, governments may be willing to apply pressure on other governments because they have many of their own nationals involved with an issue.


Gerardo A. Borromeo, PTC Holdings

Gerardo A. Borromeo, CEO of PTC Holdings in the Philippines, noted that Filipino seafarers bring back around $32bn a year to the country. “These people are normally welcomed with open arms. But when this pandemic hit, everyone considered they were transmission vectors, virus carriers. The systems were not in place to adequately test people. Effectively, movement stopped. It put a domino effect on everything else. Even if people could get to Manilla, they found they could not get home.”

PTC provides crew to vessels, and has a pool of more than 51,000 maritime professionals with 25,000 on board over 1,000 vessels worldwide at any one time. 

“One of the reasons many Filipinos go to sea is the sacrifice they are prepared to make to assist families, the significant economic benefit they have from being maritime professionals,” he said. 

Shipping companies need to be aware of the pressure which being kept at sea is putting on people. Perhaps they should offer counselling or other services to help release the pressure. They need to be aware of the impact it can have on mental health. “Everybody hits a speed bump every so often,” he said. 

Ship-shore communications are increasingly important in supporting seafarers’ communications with family members, he said. 

People say that the virus is a “99 year event we could have never planned for”, it would be good to have better preparations for the next time it happens, he said. 

For example, it would be useful to have some international identification system for essential workers.  “In times of crisis it is important to distinguish who can move and who should move,” he said. 

There could also be “hub” and “corridor” movement systems in place, such as an arrangement for  seafarers to be able to travel from Amsterdam to Manilla

Perhaps it is worth pushing for efforts to improve testing and test result turnaround time, he said. 



Knut Ørbeck-Nilssen, president of maritime with DNV GL, noted that the high levels of uncertainty and fatigue among seafarers could easily result in “severe safety issues at sea or at port”.

“Frankly speaking, that would be in the hands of local politicians who are not taking these challenges seriously and addressing them,” he said. “If this carries on, we will face more severe problems.” 



Guy Platten, Secretary General, ICS, said, “it seems to me at times governments are more interested in tourism than crew change and that is deeply frustrating.”

“Everyone feels like banging your head against a brick wall - you are not getting through.”

“Ultimately - unless the supply chain is actually disrupted - it is hard to see why governments are going to step in, that's the honest truth of it.”

“We've seen tanker companies diverted hundreds of miles, take weeks of charter, just to effect a crew change.”

“We need to keep making the case that shipping is an integral part of our lives.”

Esben Poulsson, chair of ICS, added, “a number of people have suggested it will take some example of crews refusing to sail ships and the supply chain being disrupted, to get governments to focus on it.”

“If that is the case, that is most unfortunate.

“We cannot do anything but continue our great efforts to address this problem and bring it to the attention of politicians.” 


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