Ships have become ‘prisons’ for crew amid pandemic

Container ship Rio Centaurus at berth 21. at the Kenyan port of Mombasa. / Kenya Port Authority

When the coronavirus pandemic struck in 2020, sailors at the end of their contract were brutally prevented from returning home. Flights were canceled and borders were closed by port states, transit countries and countries of origin. Over the months, the dismay of the sailors turned to bewilderment and then anger as governments were unwilling to come up with practical solutions.

This meant that the lives of sailors operating cruise ships, cargo ships and fishing boats were in crisis.

CGTN’s Halligan Agade traveled to Mombasa, a coastal town in Kenya, home to one of Africa’s largest ports, to interview Betty Makena, an inspector for the International Federation of Transport Workers in Kenya.

According to Makena, most sailors suffer from mental health problems after being on board for long periods without disembarking. Some even ended up dying of a heart attack.

“The seafarers suffered a lot at the end of their contracts. They suffered from mental health issues. We have a lot of dying crews on board. In the Kenyan port of Mombasa, we received 3-4 ships whose crew came and collapsed, ”Makena said during the interview.

She said all of the deaths were recorded due to heart attacks according to autopsy reports.

Container ship Rio Centaurus at berth 21. at the Kenyan port of Mombasa. / Kenya Port Authority

Every month at least 100,000 seafarers must be transferred from ships, as the maritime labor convention stipulates a maximum of 11 months, a period during which a seafarer can stay on board but during the pandemic this has become difficult.

Some stranded sailors had been on board for over a year. Governments would not allow them to disembark for a walk or even emergency medical care. Seafarers told the International Federation of Transport Workers that they were increasingly tired, tired and desperate to leave their “floating jails”.

“Right now, I can tell you, we have four cases of dead people on board and all at Mombasa port, why? Because they have been there too long, they are tired, have mental problems, they need to rest. When they get off the ship, they need time off ashore, it’s only for a day. They can go to the beach or go shopping, ”Makena said.

According to the ITF, four crew members ended their lives within two weeks. On April 30, 2020, a Polish crew member jumped overboard the Jewel of the Seas. On May 9, 2020, a Hungarian sailor was found dead in his cabin aboard the Carnival Breeze. And a Ukrainian sailor working aboard the Regal Princess jumped overboard in Rotterdam after learning his flight had been canceled.

But it is not only the tragedies and the well-being of the sailors that have been documented. Some of them, especially those who were hired on cruise ships, lost their jobs by the thousands.

“The seafarers who were really affected were on the cruise ships, the hospitality part because we had Kenyans who had been recruited. I remember one company took 473 Kenyans, then there was another with over 1,000 and they all went home in 2020. ”


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