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History of pandemics due to ship voyages 

By: ATTY. DENNIS GORECHO - Columnist/CDN Digital | June 04,2020 - 02:38 PM

Many Filipinos   knew by heart the  Korean phrases like “annyeonghaseyo” (hello) or “kamsahamnida” (thank you) due to  their fascination with Koreanovelas, especially now that they had to stay home due to the COVID-19 community quarantine.

“Kingdom” is one interesting Netflix series that  revolved around the story of crown Prince Lee Chang as he struggle to save his people from the spread of a  plague and the royal dynasty from being overthrown.

Kingdom” takes place in the late 15th or early 16th century — in the Joseon dynasty period — after the Japanese invasion. It is based on the historical plague that swept through Korea during the Joseon dynasty, killing thousands in days.

The infection spreads at an alarming rate transforming the locals into  yowling monsters that crave human flesh and blood. In one scene, the  higher officials decided to burn the infected peasant’s bodies but bury those from higher social class. As the havoc continued, the noblemen attempted to return home via the only ship in dock. Unfortunately, said voyage brought the infection closer to the seat of  power causing more outbreak.

The gates of the fortress were also closed as a form of quarantine against the infected. The word “quarantine” is derived  from the Italian quarantena, or 40 days.

It was first used in the 14th century for ships suspected of carrying a contagious disease that were held in isolation offshore for 40 days before passengers and crew were allowed to disembark.

History has seen the desolating role  of ships as the transporters of innumerable pandemics when viruses travel with international trade across geographies.

These are characterized by the  devastating effects throughout history not only in terms of the great mortalities of humans and animals but also the ensuing social, economic and cultural aftermaths.

The  pandemics of plague of the 6th, 14th and 20th centuries were  spread along the international trade routes as rice and wheat grain, clothing, and trade merchandise were infested by infected fleas. The primary hosts of the fleas were the black urban rat and the brown sewer rat.

In October 1347, twelve  ships from the Black Sea docked at the Italian port of Messina, which  were called “death ships” as most sailors aboard were dead or almost dead.  The plague became known as the “Black Death” as it moved from the ports to land and to other ports in Europe.

Cholera pandemics throughout the 19th century that originated from India were also attributed to British army and naval ships traveling from India  to the Persian Gulf. The disease eventually made its way to European territory by 1821.

A large factor in the worldwide occurrence of the 1918-1919 Spanish influenza was increased travel. It was originally carried by soldiers on overcrowded troop ships during the first world war. The rate of transmission on these ships was rapid, and soldiers died in large numbers. The  global death toll was estimated to have been anywhere from 17 million to 50 million.

Fast forward.

The current COVID19 pandemic has again brought to international attention the cruise ships industry, though cruise ships have a long history of infectious disease outbreaks.

Ships have been notably vulnerable to  the spread of due to the fact that there are hundreds or thousands of passengers in a relatively confined environment for days or weeks.

Cruise ships are particularly susceptible  as they are intended to engage the passengers in public  activities like  dining, swimming and dancing together in enclosed spaces over a sustained period of time.

There were  even reports that virus particles spreads  from room to room through the ship’s ventilation, which relies on re-circulated air.

Many companies initially  negotiated for their passengers to disembark, talking with countries and local governments circumspect of sick travellers.

Sadly, most crew members remained on board vessels floating off-coast as the pandemic disrupted voyages around the world.

Reports of infected seafarers and fatalities raised fears among seafarers  that some companies failed to protect its workers, including their right to healthy and safe environment as well as repatriation under international law like the Maritime Labour Convention of 2006. 

International Labor Organization (ILO)  Director-General Guy Ryder has earlier 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”.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) ITF said that it  will not let up the pressure until every seafarer is home safely and those seafarers that have patiently waited at home to relieve their colleagues are on board.

“Anjeon yuji””as they say “Stay safe” in Korean.

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

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