Stella Maris: The impact of COVID-19 on the lives of seafarers

Since the declaration of the pandemic by the World Health Organization, it is clear that the lives of seafarers, fishers and their families has been impacted significantly.

Commercial shipping has not stopped and vessels continue to cross the oceans moving essentials goods needed for our lives. Many crew members had their contracts extended because borders were closed and even today it is very difficult, sometimes impossible to organize crew change. 

The cruise industry has come to a complete stop.  Several cruise ships with infected passengers and crews on board were refused entry into port. Passengers got priority and returned safely home, leaving thousands upon thousands of crew members stranded in vessels around the world, without flights home, but most of all with a bleak future for them and their families. Hundreds of thousands of seafarers, especially those employed by the cruise industry, will be unemployed for months, possbily years. The impact on their, and their families’, lives will be significant.

The whole fisheries sector was also hugely hit by the COVID-19 and the precarious condition in which many fishers and their families are living was aggravated by the lack of daily income and of safety net provided by government institutions.

Being on the front line in ports, the Chaplains and the volunteers of Stella Maris realized straightaway the immediate situation of emergency of many seafarers and fishers with no source of income and stranded in foreign nations or even in their own country. Immediatioly, with many ports locked down, everyone on board was prevented from coming ashore for fear of infections: Stella Maris chaplains and volunteers shifted to “virtual chaplaincy” and, where it was still possible, from ship visit to “gangway visit”.

However, the real impact of COVID-19 in the life of seafarers and their needs will be clear in the next six to twelve months. For this reason Stella Maris prepared a very short survey which was filled in anonymously online, and was distributed through the personal contacts of the chaplains, volunteers and social media between 4-13 May.  It elicited 363 responses.

Stella Maris seafarers’ snapshot surveys  

To gain insights into the changing needs of seafarers and fishesrs, Stella Maris has conducted a number of surveys of its users and benenficiaries. These Survey does not pretend to be professional ones and provide scientific results, but in a simple way it gives us some answers on the problems and worries that seafarers and their families are facing now and in the future.

International on-line survey:

1)    Profile of the responding seafarer.

  • Gender: 97% male, 3% female.
  • Nationality: Philippines 83,5%, India 5,2%, other countries 11.3%
  • Age: 35-44 years 34,2%, 25-34 years 28,9% 45-54 years 22,6%
  • Civil status: married 62,8% single 34,2%.
  • Number of children: no children 34,7% one child 20,7%, two children 26,4%, three children 14,3%
  • Family members supported: more than three persons 48,2%, three persons 19%, two persons 17,4%, one person 7,2%

2)    Professional profile of the seafarer.

  • Time at sea? 10-14 years 24,2%, 5-9 years 23,1%, under 5 years 20,1%, 15-19 years 16,3%
  • Current rank? Deck Officer 13,8%, AB 13,8%, Member Steward Department 12,9% Engine Crew, Cadet and Engine Officers 9%, Master 6,3%
  • Last ship? Cargo ship 37,5%, tanker 24%, Container ship 11,6%, Cruise liner 9,9%.

3)    Current situation of the seafarers:

Current situation?  Awaiting new contract 42,4%, about to be deployed but grounded due to COVID-19 30,9%, contract terminated due to COVID-19 14,3%, contract extended due to COVID-19 12,4%

Current location: in hotel abroad waiting to return home 5,9%, at home 23,7%, in their country in a hotel, dormitory, boarding house run by welfare provider (Stella Maris), agents 67,9%

Survey questions

1. How seriously COVID-19 has impacted the life of the seafarers: Mentally, Emotionally, Physically, Psychologically and Financially.

(1) very little (2) little (3) quite a bit (4) a lot (5) very much

The proportion of those responding at levels 4 and 5 are below: 

Mentally 34%

Emotionally 36%

Physically 31%

Psychologically 30%

Financially 69%

2.       Importance of issues in the next six to twelve months

(1) slightly important (2) important (3) very important (4) urgent

The proportion of those responding at level 4 is below: 

Apply for a new contract 42%

Find a new profession 14%

Start a small business 23%

Upgrade certificates 19%

3.       Importance of family-related issues

(1) slightly important (2) important (3) quite important (4) very important (5) extremely important

The proportion of those responding at levels 4 and 5 are below: 

Feeding the family 94%

School uniform/supplies 55%

School fees 66%

Rent 69%

Monthly bills 80%

Medical expenses 63%

Loans 57%

4.       How can Stella Maris (Apostleship of the Sea) help you at this time while you are in port?

(1) slightly important (2) important (3) quite important (4) very important (5) extremely important

The proportion of those responding at levels 4 and 5 are below: 

Ship visits to bring SIM cards, magazines etc 58%

Provide pastoral support via social media 58%

Provide PPE (masks, gloves, hand sanitiser) 66%

Provide COVID 19 information 67%

Provide WiFi 71%

Transport home 58%

Financial support 56%

Manila survey: 

A separate survey was conducted among Filipino seafarers currently locked down in three Stella Maris centres in Manila

-          About to be deployed just before the lock-down: 19%

-          Intend to return to home: 22.5%

-          Want to keep on applying for an on-board ship job: 58.5% 

A similar pattern was found among 1,272 Filipino seafarers surveyed in 37 dormitories in Manila

-          About to be deployed just before the lock-down:24%

-          Intend to return home: 36%

-          Want to keep on applying for an on-board ship job: 64%

Entering the Second phase of the pandemic

As we are moving on from the initial phase of the pandemic, the initial fear about the spread of the disease, safe working practices and the immediate impact on seafarers way of life, we are beginning to see a new wave of issues affecting seafarers. In particular, there are increasing concerns around mid- to long-term financial, physical and mental health.

Upon arriving back in the Philippines seafarers are required to undergo 14 days quarantine; after that, if they go home (to their province) they are required again to undergo another 14-days quarantine by the Local Government Units.  According to the Philippine Coast Guard there are almost 8,000 Filipino crewmembers onboard the 22 foreign cruise ships, soon to be 30, now anchored in Manila Bay. After leaving the ships, they are now being given the unenviable choice of up to a further 4 weeks in isolation or the outlay at their own expense of a $200 test to show they have not got the virus, despite the IMO and ILO labeling seafarers essential workers whose transit should not be impeded.

According to the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and the International Maritime Employers’ Council (IMEC) there are 150,000 seafarers trapped at sea by COVID-19 in need of a crew change within this month.

We are also being made aware of stigma and fear surrounding seafarers when they return home to rural communities in Southern Asia, that they are ‘bringing the disease with them’ and treated as pariahs, leading to distress, fear and depression to them and their families.    

As the situation continues to evolve, Stella Maris seeks to work with all partners trying to support these developing needs of the seafarer, and ensure that they are not adversely or unfairly treated through their service to others through this pandemic.