The Seafarers of the COVID Frontline: The Role of the Maritime Industry

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An Article by: Charlotte Murphy

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the question of who is and isn’t designated a “key worker” has been a difficult debate, with many arguing that essential services go far, far beyond those provided by doctors and nurses. Although the UK government now officially recognizes seafarers as key workers, it’s arguable that the general public has little idea of the contributions made by these workers to the ongoing maintenance of the supply chain.

The maritime industry and the logistics chain

Low cost and efficient maritime transport has rightly been called the backbone of the economy, allowing the benefits of trade and resources to be transported to where they’re needed. No country could survive without maritime networks to buy and sell raw materials, ingredients, or finished articles.

Britain itself has long been a maritime dependent country, but others in the developing world can also trace improvements in sustainability, quality of life and public health to the services delivered by those in the shipping world. World Maritime Day (set for September 30th this year) intends to highlight this role in keeping the supply chain alive and thriving, with the appropriate 2021 slogan, “at the core of shipping’s future.”

Van drivers, port operators, and warehouse workers all play a vital role in the logistics chain, but the marine transport leg of each logistics chain is perhaps the most crucial. Today, the international merchant seafarers who man the ships our survival depends on number around 1.6 million, with those from China, the Philippines, Indonesia, the Russian Federation and the Ukraine most heavily represented.

A key player in tackling COVID

While the public and the media have focused on the safety and availability of the various vaccines now available, little thought is spared for the enormous logistical feats required to ship and distribute those vaccines globally. Though the maritime industry was as hard hit by economic instability and lockdown restrictions as any other, they continue to deliver the millions of precious vaccine doses – some requiring refrigeration – to countries all around the world.

There’s no doubt that the international network of seafarers has been indispensable to the global initiative to vaccinate as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. And this is not to mention the simultaneous ongoing supply of other essential goods during the pandemic – any consumer need only recall the toilet paper crisis of early 2020 to comprehend how critical it is to preserve routine supply chains, no matter what.

Knock-on effects

But the role of the maritime and shipping industry perhaps extends even further than the more obvious supply of goods. Shipping containers themselves are the workhorses of the industry, and due to their durability they can continue to serve in new, repurposed roles. During the height of the pandemic, creative solutions with shipping containers included repurposing them into modular accommodation, overflow hospitals and vaccination facilities, cost effective and eco-friendly research premises and temporary testing sites.

The maritime industry has long been understood to be a key creator of economic value, and an important driver of any nation’s economic and political success. But with shipping containers the maritime industry may also inadvertently supply a secondary resource that made a massive difference during the peak of the Covid crisis. Going forward, it’s likely that shipping containers will continue to feature whenever environmentally conscious, affordable and temporary accommodation is required.

The international Maritime Summit has highlighted the need for better security and support for seafarers. UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said, “Throughout this pandemic, seafarers have played a crucial, though sometimes unseen, role in keeping vital supplies flowing into the country.” Yet sadly, after several incidents last year where seafarers were stranded on ships due to lockdown restrictions, it’s clear that more needs to be done. With crew trapped onboard for longer than legally permitted while others languish on shore without pay, our dependence on these workers is not reflected in their treatment.

Most laypeople have very little idea of the vast and complicated logistical network that underpins almost every material convenience in their everyday lives. During the coronavirus pandemic, we were all reminded of the fragility and importance of this network of hardworking seafarers, and were forced to expand our definition of what we ordinarily considered “essential.”

With vaccine rollout now well underway in many countries, and supply chains stabilizing, it’s worth remembering the dedicated men and women who worked, often unacknowledged, to bring order and stability in the face of emergency. Though the world has not yet fully recovered from the pandemic, it’s impossible to imagine how any of the strides we have made could have been achieved without seafarers at the very forefront.