Coronavirus strands merchant ship crews at sea for months

About 150,000 merchant seafarers are in need of a crew change, according to the International Chamber of Shipping. (AP)
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Updated 05 June 2020

Coronavirus strands merchant ship crews at sea for months

  • Virus takes toll on merchant navies, who carry over 80 percent of global trade

ATHENS: For nearly four months, Capt. Andrei Kogankov and his oil tanker crew haven’t set foot on dry land. With global travel at a virtual standstill due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Russian captain was forced to extend his normal contract. He still doesn’t know when he’ll be able to go home.

Countries across the world have imposed lockdowns, shut borders and suspended international flights to curb the spread of the new coronavirus. The move was deemed essential to prevent rampaging contagion, but merchant ship crews have become unintended collateral damage.

About 150,000 seafarers are stranded at sea in need of crew changes, according to the International Chamber of Shipping. Roughly another 150,000 are stuck on shore, waiting to get back to work.

“In some ways, they’ve been the forgotten army of people,” said Guy Platten, secretary general of the ICS. “It’s not a tenable position to keep on indefinitely. You can’t just keep extending people,” said Platten.

With more than 80 percent of global trade by volume transported by sea, the world’s more than 2 million merchant seafarers play a vital role.

“They’re out of sight and out of mind, and yet they’re absolutely essential for moving the fuel, the food, the medical supplies and all the other vital goods to feed world trade,” Platten said.

International shipping organizations, trade unions and shipping companies are urging countries to recognize merchant crews as essential workers and allow them to travel and carry out crew changes.

“Our challenge now is to get a very strong message to governments. You can’t expect people to move (personal protective equipment), drugs and all the issues that we need to respond to COVID, and keep cities and countries that are in lockdown fed, if you don’t move cargo on ships,” said Steve Cotton, General Secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, or ITF. “They’ve got to recognize the sacrifice seafarers are making for our global society.”

Kogankov is seven months into a four-month contract and was supposed to be replaced in mid-March in Qatar. But a few days before he arrived, Qatar imposed a lockdown and banned international flights.

From there to South Korea, Japan, South Korea again and on to Singapore and Thailand, each time the same story: Lockdown. No flights. No going home.

The uncertainty and open-ended extension of his contract — and with it the responsibility for his 21-man crew and a ship carrying flammable cargo — is taking its toll.

“When you are seven months on board, you are becoming physically and mentally exhausted,” Kogankov said by satellite phone from Thailand. “We are working 24/7. We don’t have, let’s say, Friday night or Saturday night or weekends. No, the vessel is running all the time.”

Officers sign on for three to four months, the rest of the crew for around seven months. But they always have an end date. Take that away, and suddenly the prospect of endless workdays becomes a strain.

“We’re gravely worried that there could be a higher increase of incidents and accidents. But we also are seeing a high level of what I would describe as anxiety and frustration,” Cotton said. “If you don’t know when you’re going to get off a ship, that adds to a high level of anxiety that really is quite demoralizing.”

Unless governments facilitate crew changes, Cotton warned, “it’s difficult for us to convince the seafarers not to take more dramatic action, and ... stop working.”

It’s not just crew changes that are problematic during the pandemic. Getting medical help for seafarers has also become difficult, as Capt. Stephan Berger discovered when one of his crew fell ill — not with coronavirus.

Lockdowns in successive ports made visiting a doctor impossible. It took multiple phone calls and the combined efforts of a Dubai paramedic, Berger and the German ship-owning company to eventually get the necessary care for the crewmember, who was hospitalized for three weeks.

Of the 23 people aboard Berger’s Berlin Express, 18 were due for a crew change when it moored in Valencia, Spain, in late May. The officers had extended what were normally three-month contracts to four and five months, while the mostly Filipino crew had been on board for eight or nine months, instead of three or four.

Despite this, morale has been good, Berger said.

Nobody is particularly happy with the contract extensions, “but we have to take it as it is,” he said. “It feels sometimes like a prison.”

Ship-owning company Hapag-Lloyd was doing everything it could to arrange crew changes and managed to arrange for the seven European crew members to sign off in Barcelona on May 30, Berger said. But there are still no flights home for the Filipino crew.

“We are very much hidden. We are on board our vessels, and the people might see the big ships coming in and out of the ports, but very seldom they see the people who are operating the ships,” Berger said. “We hope that people would recognize it a little bit more now.”

On another Hapag-Lloyd container ship, apprentice Hannah Gerlach was to sign off in mid-March in Singapore. But even as her vessel headed to Asia, it was clear that wouldn’t happen. Gerlach packed her bags for an earlier departure from Sri Lanka, but by the time she arrived, so had the lockdown.

“I definitely miss my family very much ... And I miss just these moments of a normal life, to have the possibility to go out for a walk, to the forest, to ride the bicycle,” Gerlach said. “You don’t know any more when your contract will end, when you have the chance to see your family again.”

David Hammond, founder of the Human Rights at Sea organization, said many seafarers “have really been at the end of their tether” due to contract extensions. “The reality is that until there is global cooperation among states and shipping entities ... then crew change is going to be very problematic.”

$8bn blow to Erdogan as investors flee Turkey

Updated 09 July 2020

$8bn blow to Erdogan as investors flee Turkey

  • Overseas holdings in Istanbul stock exchange are at lowest in 16 years

ANKARA: Foreign capital is flooding out of Turkey in a massive vote of no confidence in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s economic competence.
Overseas investors have withdrawn nearly $8 billion from Turkish stocks since January, according to Central Bank statistics, reducing foreign investment in the Istanbul stock exchange from $32.3 billion to $24.4 billion.
As recently as 2013, the figure was $82 billion, and foreign investors now own less than 50 percent of stocks for the first time in 16 years.
“Foreign investment has left Turkey for several reasons, both internal and external,” Win Thin, global head of currency strategy at Brown Brothers Harriman, told Arab News.
“Externally, investors fled riskier assets like emerging markets during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Some of those flows are returning, but investors are being much more discerning and Turkey does not seem so attractive.”
In terms of internal factors, Thin said that Turkish policymakers had made it hard for foreign investors to transact in Turkey. “This includes real money clients, not just speculative.
“By implementing ad hoc measures to try and limit speculative activity, Turkey has made it hard for real money as well. Besides these problems, Turkey’s fundamentals remain poor compared to much of the emerging markets.”
Erdogan allies claim international players are manipulating the Istanbul stock exchange through automated trading, and have demanded action to make it difficult for them to trade in Turkish assets.
Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, Merrill Lynch, Barclays and Credit Suisse were banned this month from short-selling stocks for up to three months, and this year local lenders were briefly banned by the banking regulator from trading in Turkish lira with Citigroup, BNP Paribas and UBS
JPMorgan was investigated by Turkish authorities last year after the bank published a report that advised its clients to short sell the Turkish lira.
MSCI, the provider of research-based indexes and analytics, warned last month that it may relegate Turkey from emerging market status to frontier-market status because of bans on short selling and stock lending.
With the market becoming less transparent, overseas fund managers, especially with short-term portfolios, are unenthusiastic about the Turkish market and are becoming more concerned about any forthcoming introduction of other liquidity restrictions.
The exodus of foreign capital is likely to undermine Turkey’s drive for economic growth, especially during the coronavirus pandemic when employment and investment levels have gone down, with the Turkish lira facing serious volatility.