Seafarers and the COVID-19 stigma

By: ATTY. DENNIS R. GORECHO - Columnist/CDN Digital | April 14,2020 - 07:00 AM


The outbreak of COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) is causing a more problematic side of society – social stigma and discrimination against certain sectors, including seafarers.

Public health emergencies such COVID19 are stressful times for people and communities. Seafarers are also on the frontline of the response to the pandemic and their protection is vital to ensure that significant services continue.

Shipping is the life blood of the global economy as ships transport almost 90 percent of the world’s trade that includes food, medicine, energy and raw materials, as well as manufactured goods and components. Seafarers are not only responsible for the operations of such ships but are also in charge  for the safe and smooth delivery of the cargo.

With one Filipino out of every four or five seafarers on board a ship (whether cargo or cruise ), the largest population of crew members comes from the Philippines. There are over 375,000 deployed Filipino seafarers that contribute an estimated  $6.14 Billion as remittances in 2018.

However, port restrictions and cancelled flights are straining the ability for shipping firms to replace seafarers, further weakening global supply chains. Ports in some parts of the world have refused to allow some ships to enter because they had previously docked in areas affected by COVID-19, preventing vessels from obtaining essential supplies.

“Seafarers are just as worthy as everyone else and should be treated with dignity and respect to ensure that they can continue to provide their vital services to the world,” the Special Tripartite Committee of the Maritime Labour Convention (MLC, 2006) said in a statement.

There are reports that some suppliers have been prevented from boarding ships to give masks, overalls and other personal protective equipment to crews.

ILO Director-General Guy Ryder, has asked governments “to ensure that, in these challenging times, seafarers are adequately protected from the COVID-19 pandemic, have access to medical care, and can travel to and from their ships, as necessary, in order to continue to play their crucial role”.

He added that seafarers should be treated as ‘key workers’ and be exempted from travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions will cripple not only seafarers but countries who rely on overseas supplies.

In the case of cruise ships, thousands of passengers and crew members remained on board worldwide, with workers representing dozens of countries and nationalities, due to port and border  closures as well as flight restrictions. There were 537 Filipino seafarers on board Diamond Princess that was placed under two-weeks quarantine after it docked in Yokohama Bay  last February. At least 25 other cruise ships have been later  confirmed with COVID-19 cases.

Cruise ships are often settings for outbreaks of infectious diseases because of their closed environment, contact between travellers from many countries, and crew transfers between ships. Cruise ships bring diverse populations into proximity for many days, facilitating transmission of the respiratory illness.

Due to halted operations of cruise ships, thousands of seafarers were displaced from work and begun arriving via charter flights back to the Philippines. They boarded onto buses and were placed in a 14-day preventative quarantine in hotels by the Philippine Government. Thereafter, some have gone back to their families while some are staying in Manila due to the lockdown.

Sadly, some residents have recently rejected the idea of converting hotels into quarantine facilities/ temporary shelters for repatriated Filipino seafarers who they feared are  carriers of the deadly virus.

Fear and anxiety about a disease can lead to social stigma toward these seafarers. Stigma and discrimination occur because people associate a disease, such as COVID-19, with the  specific sector like the seafarers, even though not everyone in the group is specifically at risk for the disease. Due to inadequate knowledge about the nature of COVID-19, people felt a need to blame or struggle to cope with fears about the disease and death.

Stigma stings everyone by creating fear or anger towards other people. Some of the manifestations of stigma are social avoidance or rejection, physical violence and denials of health care, education, housing or employment. Discrimination causes further damage by spawning more apprehension  or anger — feelings confounded  towards people instead  of  toward the problem.

Filipinos should not give in to fear or panic that lessen our humanity and respect to seafarers – they are also one of our frontliners in this COVID-19 pandemic.

Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, email [email protected], or call 09175025808 or 09088665786).

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