Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic the shipping industry has kept the world supplied with raw materials, fuel, food and goods, including vital medical supplies. A global network of millions of people – real people – are responsible for moving these goods safely and efficiently across the world. These seafarers work tirelessly around the clock to support global trade. These unsung heroes are required to cross borders just to do their job and we have had to ensure that they can do this safely.

This year, their role will take on even more significance, as sailors become crucial to effectively distributing vaccines to countries across the world, particularly developing economies. For this to happen, they must receive vaccines themselves as a priority. In reality, this means that agreeing best practice around treatment of sailors in 2021 will be crucial to millions of peoples’ wellbeing around the world.

A humanitarian crisis

Without functioning shipping and ports, cargoes including those with life-saving supplies cannot be transported to where they are needed. Our supermarket shelves would be empty, our hospitals would face a severe shortage of essential medical supplies. This would be a huge problem in itself, but coupled with the worst global pandemic for a century? It would be a true crisis which would put lives at risk.

Unforgivably, this thriving, crucial human industry faced a widely ignored humanitarian crisis throughout 2020, where governments’ commitment to act too often fell by the wayside. As we move into 2021, this simply has to change.

As the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported recently, seafarers reported ‘physical and mental exhaustion, anxiety and sickness after spending months on board ships during the pandemic […] Hundreds of people were denied medical care ashore, resulting in a number of deaths’. This has been found to be in breach of international law according to the UN’s International Labour Organization’s committee of experts.

The need for best practice

Throughout 2020, the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), published regular guidance on how ship owners and nation states should treat seafarers, with the industries regulator, the UN’s International Maritime Organization, recommending implementation by member states. Additionally, the UN’s secretary general, and even Pope Francis have emphasized how important it is to recognise the crucial role that seafarers play.

Both ICS and the shipping company Ocean Network Express (ONE) have called for nation states to recognise sailors as key workers – remember, shop shelves would be empty without them – but to date only 46 countries plus Hong Kong have done so. That’s less than a third of all seafaring nations. 2021 is now the opportunity for the world to prioritise the treatment of its seafarers.

In fact, given the central role sailors will play in distributing vaccines to countless individuals (especially in developing countries), failing to enshrine priority treatment would be an unforgivable oversight.

A shot in the arm

We have all been heartened by the roll out of effective vaccines against COVID-19. It’s an achievement which holds out the promise of normality. Distributing doses of these vaccines is now top priority, and seafarers should be amongst the first to get them so that they are not exposed to additional risk as they cross borders to deliver them to the world.

It’s impossible to keep our supermarket shelves stocked, and our hospitals supplied with life-saving equipment without our seafarers. Let’s not forget, you can’t simply work from home when you’re at sea.

Seafarers will be responsible for making vaccinations possible in many countries. In developing nations in particular, around six or seven times the amount of PPE is required to safely carry out one vaccination. Like 90% of globally traded goods, these will travel mainly by ship. While doses may be flown into a city under refrigerated conditions, they will be useless without the supporting PPE. Millions of lives will be affected by delays to ships and/or their crew; making the clearest possible case for seafarers to be amongst the first to receive vaccines in the coming months.

How might this look? The idea of a ‘digital vaccine pass’ is currently being discussed by a range or organisations, including the World Economic Forum. It’s an attractive idea; a simple piece of digital documentation which shows officials that a seafarer is safely vaccinated against the virus and can proceed through customs or on/off a ship. It’s an updated system to those that already exist for diseases like yellow fever. What is crucially important is that competing commercial operations to set up these passes agree on underlying best practice. That is to say: that they are developed in line with WHO guidance; that the system is secure and cannot be exploited, and that they are interoperable with each other.

Recognising our seafarers

We need a collective effort from governments, industry and trade bodies to ensure that best practice in the next stage of the pandemic – vaccinations – is not only created, but strictly followed. The governments yet to recognise seafarers as key workers must do so. Ship owners will put in place the infrastructure to support vaccinations. And trade bodies will continue to lobby for their members to receive those vaccinations as a priority. Only through this can we achieve the triple aim of helping global trade remain strong, bringing vaccines to all including developing economies, and ensuring that the two million seafarers across the world’s oceans are themselves protected.