The pandemic impact on seafarers and K-quarantine at sea ports

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Korean authorities adding Russia to a list of risky countries

Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW) has taken more stringent measures after the Covid-19 outbreak on two Russian reefer ships on their arrival in Busan port on 21 June. Korea has continued to allow crew change but the MOHW announced that application for crew landing permits is restricted.

Shipowners, managers, and agencies must explicitly declare the purpose and crew’s next routes on application documents, which must be followed. Authorities in Busan investigated a potential coronavirus cluster connected to a Russian fishing ship that moored at the northern port. It is said that eight Russian-flagged ships arrived in Busan in the past which carried crew members who were infected with the coronavirus, numbering total 78.

The Busan Port Authority (BPA) strengthens disinfection measures in Gamcheon port, which has specialized port facilities for reefer ships, containerships, and offshore fishing ships from various countries. As of 3rd August, health authorities said, all crew members of vessels departing from Russia are required to submit a certificate which shows their having tested negative for the coronavirus on arriving in Korea.

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Seafarers suffering metal health crisis due to COVID-19 impacts

An estimated 300,000 cargo ship workers are currently trapped at sea due to the coronavirus outbreak. Although goods continue to be shipped from port to port, border closures and regulations still block many seafarers from being on land. Since nations closed their borders during the pandemic thousands of seafarers transporting 90% of the world’s goods had no choice but to remain on board bearing looming potential accidents.

Shipping firms are also struggling to arrange for a new crew. This means that some maritime businesses are violating the international Maritime Labor Convention, which says that seafarers cannot be made to work without shore leave for longer than eleven months. The petroleum used for energy, foods found on market shelves, goods delivered by many companies, and medical supplies keeps moving since cargo ship workers are still working on board.

Some seafarers who had been at sea for a longer period reported that they’d thought they wouldn’t have survived that period and even thought of committing suicide because of the stress. Even stringent sanitation measures and social distancing have made life at sea even harder. Workers on board should keep a high level of hygiene standards and maintain social distancing due to additional safety measures in a relatively small space.

Even though many nations are reopening their borders, several barriers still prevent sailors from going home and having sea crew changes. Some sailors have to renew their contracts for the second or third time only because they cannot get off the vessel, which is increasing the psychological pressure and stress of these workers.

The mental health crisis due to the inability of seafarers to sign off and heavy workloads should be thoughtfully handled. Therefore, at least offering online access to their family is crucial to seafarers’ wellbeing since they are unable to leave the ships to contact their family due to the pandemic. But easier and more effective solution to this crisis should be applied; seafarers can return to their family to avert the long-term impact of a mental health crisis among seafarers.

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Only about 25% of normal crew changes have taken place since March 2020

“It is time to act for seafarers, safe ship operations and crew wellbeing should not be compromised. The humanitarian crisis seafarers face has implications for all of us, for the world economy and for the safety of life at sea and the environment,” said Kitack Lim, secretary-general of the International Maritime Organization, on a virtual International Maritime Summit, held on 9 July 2020 by the government of the UK. Thirteen countries signed a pact for exemptions in port controls and more commercial flights to facilitate crew changes. IMO Secretary-General Lim also urged further Member States to sign up to pledges to ensure more than 200,000 seafarers can be repatriated after months on board ship beyond their initial contracts.

Unlike most countries, Korea has allowed seafarers to repatriate through special quarantine procedures or self-quarantine after entering Korea, and abided by most of the IMO’s recommendations compared to other countries. Korea experienced an early massive outbreak of the pandemic, but even as the world locked down, Korea has not closed its international borders, let alone domestic one. Aggressive testing, contact tracing, and a sophisticated quarantining system, which is called ‘K-quarantine’, enable Korea to remain open by responding proportionately to the risk assessments of experts opposed to completely closing its border.

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Crew change procedure in Korea and where it is allowed and where it is not.

Korea has permitted crew change but after recently at least 32 sailors on a Russian flagged fishing ship berthed in Busan tested positive for the coronavirus, it has made it mandatory for Russians to hand in the health certificates. Starting from 3rd August 2020, if the vessels have on-signers from the seven COVID-19 high-risk countries including Russia, Philippines, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, they have to submit a negative PCR test result issued within 48 hours before departure.

The failure to submit the certificate issued within 48 hours before departure prevents all crew onboard ship from disembarking in Korea. Crew’s shore leaves are also allowed if they satisfy the following requirements. The crew should undergo mandatory COVID-19 infection test at their expenses and has to be isolated on the vessel until their test results are confirmed.

Special Quarantine procedures and self-diagnosis Mobile App installation are required for shore leave and the crew conditions are monitored by the installed APP during their shore leaves. Special Quarantine Procedures are also applied to all crews from the ships which have departed from Japan within the last 14 days.

However, cruise ships are not permitted to call at any port in Korea temporarily. Only when a cruise ship needs bunkering or store supplies without disembarking from the ship, can it call at anchorage.

Still, some nations including Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka, etc., are completely not allowing foreign crew change. It’s too sad to hear with many having been working far beyond their contractual terms in recent months and facing the issue of travel restrictions. Maritime key workers should bypass the visa restriction and global logistics should be operated maintaining human rights and mental welfare.

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