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Ships became ‘prisons’ for crew amidst the pandemic

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When the coronavirus pandemic struck in 2020, seafarers at the end of their contracts were suddenly prevented from going home. Flights were canceled and borders were closed by port states, transit countries, and home nations. As the months stretched on seafarers’ dismay turned into bewilderment and then anger as governments were unwilling to provide practical solutions.

This meant that the lives of seafarers operating cruise ships, cargo vessels, and fishing vessels were thrown into crisis.

CGTN’s Halligan Agade traveled to Kenya’s coastal city of Mombasa, the home of one of Africa’s largest ports to interview Betty Makena the International Transport Workers Federation-Inspector in Kenya.

According to Makena, most of the seafarers suffered mental health after staying on board for long periods without disembarking. Some even ended up dying due to heart attacks.

“Seafarers suffered a lot when their contracts ended. They suffered from mental health issues. We got a lot of crews dying on board. In the Kenyan port of Mombasa, we received 3-4 vessels which crew came and collapsed,” Makena said during the interview.

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

Container vessel Rio Centaurus at Berth No.21. at Kenya’s Port of Mombasa. /Kenya Ports Authority

Every month at least 100,000 seafarers need to be changed over from ships, as the Maritime Labour Convention stipulates 11 months maximum, a period that a seafarer can stay on board but during the pandemic, that became difficult.

Some stranded seafarers had been onboard for more than a year. Governments wouldn’t allow them ashore for a walk or even emergency medical care. Seafarers told the International Transport Workers Federation that they were growing increasingly tired, fatigued, and desperate to leave their ‘floating prisons’.

“Right now, I can tell you, we’ve four cases of people who have died on board and all of them at the port of Mombasa, why? Because they overstayed, they are tired, have mental issues, they need to rest. When they come out of the ship, they need the shore leave, it’s only for a day. They can go to the beach or do shopping,” Makena said.

According to the ITF, four crew members reportedly ended their lives within a period of two weeks. On 30 April 2020, a crew member from Poland jumped overboard from the Jewel of the Seas. On 9 May 2020, a seafarer from Hungary was found dead in his cabin onboard the Carnival Breeze. And Ukrainian seafarer working onboard the Regal Princess jumped overboard in Rotterdam after hearing that her flight had been canceled.

But it was not just tragedies and the wellbeing of the seafarers that was documented. Some of them especially those who were hired on cruise ships lost their employment in thousands.

“Seafarers who were really affected were on cruise ships, the hospitality part because we had Kenyans who had been recruited. I remember one company had taken 473 Kenyans, then there was another with over 1000 and all of them came back home in 2020.”

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