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Christopoulou: On board but not alone during COVID-19

Apr 5, 2020 03:05 PM

Our seafarers are on board but they must not feel alone!

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the maritime industry once again faces a great challenge to overcome this unprecedented situation for stranded seafarers. As a high priority, shipping companies, trade organizations and governments need to collaborate to protect the hundreds of thousands of seafarers confined on board vessels scattered all over the world, with no, or minimum, option to disembark and return home. Additionally, they need to provide constant and much necessary support to the seafarers stuck onboard beyond their tours to remain functional and in good physical and mental health.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO) is seeking U.N. support in its effort to designate seafarers as "key workers" to enable exemptions for crew changes and repatriations. This is imperative since recent information suggests that the COVID-19 lockdown will most probably continue at least through the end of April.
The inability to change crew and repatriate is a grim and devastating situation for shipowners and crew managers to tackle and an impossible puzzle that no one would want to have on his/her lap at this instance.

On the other hand, most seafarers have bravely embraced their new, compulsory duty to remain "indefinitely" on board and support the global effort to contain this horrific worldwide pandemic.

Seafarers are now required to: control their own stress levels; fight the fatigue from the extended service on board; cooperate with equally tense and concerned colleagues onboard and ashore, operating at make shift home offices; and liaise with port state, flag state and other international authorities. They must do all this while continuing to fully perform their duties as efficiently as they did before the pandemic.

Most importantly, while on stuck onboard seafarers must deal with the fear for the health and well-being of their loved ones. At the same time reassuring their loved ones back home of their well-being while feeling unable to participate or assist, a fact that further affects each seafarers’ fragile emotional stability.

One could cynically say "This is what they have been doing for many, many years, at the time of SARS, H1N1 and even before with 1918 flu, and they have proved their resilience and high spirit, heroically maintaining the worldwide supply chain intact." Undoubtedly this may have been the case in the past but what we are experiencing today has no precedent.

COVID-19 forced all of us to deal with the unexpected, the unthought-of scenario; the meteor that fell on Earth, with few contingency plans available or ready to deploy all without appreciation of the pandemic’s worldwide reach and devasting health, social and economic impact.

At this time, eulogies about our "brave seafarers" and wishful thinking are of limited value. Initiatives such as #thankyou are great but provide little actual support. Now is the time to assume responsibility and actively demonstrate real care for our seafarers.

It is therefore incumbent that every available tool must be evaluated and included in a holistic plan to support the effort of our seafarers and their well-being.
Companies are privileged to have technology in their tool kit and means to assist masters, officers and crew to maintain their mental health and stamina in such difficult times.

The increase of suicide incidents (UK P&I Club data identified an increase of incidents to 15.3 percent in 2017 from 4.4 percent in 2014) on board ships and the growing awareness that seafarers suffer a higher level of mental ill health compared to land-based workers, is a factor that shipping executives cannot afford to overlook, especially in such critical circumstances.

Seafarers need to feel their efforts are appreciated by the industry and that they are supported in a meaningful way during this difficult and unprecedented situation.

Smiling, they post photos on social media, holding self-made signs with positive messages such as, "We stay on board – you stay at home," "We stay on board – you stay safe!" Let’s keep is that way.

Companies should exercise due diligence and empower their seafarers. Through implementing company and industry campaigns and supporting schemes, they need to deploy means and holistic processes to monitor stress levels and dangerous signals and be ready to intervene timely as, and when, needed.
Here are some indicative symptoms of acute stress and a few practical tips that could help our seafarers while on board:

Feelings: Increase of intense, negative feelings such as guilt, anger, anxiety, sorrow, longing and irritation;
Thoughts: Confusion, bad thoughts, difficulty concentrating, lack of rational thinking and suspicion;
Behaviors: Indecisiveness, aggressiveness and lack of trust; and physical: intense sweating, tight muscles, hands trembling, increased breathing pace and insomnia. Now is the time for companies to look out for the "weak signals" and take some action to manage seafarer stress.

The following are just a few examples of coping mechanisms:

RELAX FROM THE TENSION
    •    breath and exhale from your nose
    •    mild exercise
    •    muscles stretching
    •    try to eat healthy food

DEAL WITH STRESS
    •    read a book
    •    listen to a favorite piece of music / a relaxation CD
    •    communicate with colleagues and talk about your feelings
    •    laugh
    •    do something you enjoy
    •    allow yourself to daydream for a few minutes
    •    avoid reading the news before you go to sleep

MANAGE UNPLEASANT THOUGHTS
    •    Remember, you can only control your words, your actions, your ideas, your feelings, your mistakes and your behavior.
    •    Do not worry about things that haven’t happen or what is beyond your control and stay focused in the present.
    •    Don’t be intimidated to ask for help.

These are some first step-to-step tips to protect mariners’ well-being aboard ships during COVID-19. Let’s make sure that seafarers are supported, appreciated and not alone!

Maria Christopoulou is an associate of ASCOT Consulting. She holds a bachelor in political sciences degree and public administration management degree from National Kapodistriakon University of Athens Law School and has over 20 years’ experience in operations for major international shipping companies. She can be reached at mchristopoulou@ascot-consulting.net.

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