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COVID triggers mental health crisis among seafarers

The COVID-19 crisis has triggered a mental health crisis among the world’s seafarers with many considering self-harm or suicide.

Most seafarers work a typical contract length of nine months, but many have now been at sea for up to 15 months due to the pandemic, working on average 10-12 hours a day.

John Wilson, CEO of support body the Liverpool Seafarers Centre, has seen the acute impact of the crew change crisis first-hand.

“It’s affected them mentally – you can tell just by their facial expression,” John said ahead of UN Day of the Seafarer on June 25th. “Many have had no choice but to extend their contracts and have not been able to get off their vessels.

“We saw people become very, very angry at the start of the pandemic when they were told by their recruiting companies that they were not going to be able to go home. One or two of them weren’t far off becoming violent and demanded to get off the ship.”

Ships are usually crewed by people of a variety of nationalities, with a typical workforce potentially including Chinese, Filipinos, Indonesians, Indians, Bangladeshis, Poles, Bulgarians, Croatians, Russians and Ukrainians.

This would have made it virtually impossible for many to get home, even if they had left the ships.

“We explained that even if they somehow managed to get home, they’d be breaking their contract and the income their family relied upon would stop; and the chances were they’d also be blacklisted,” Wilson said.

“I imagine it’s similar to living in a prison: seeing the same people every day, conversation gets limited as time goes on. The routine carries on and it just becomes more and more mundane. It’s a downward spiral.”

Seafarers visiting Liverpool

Crosby-based LSC, which has roots dating back to the 19th Century, supports around 50,000 seafarers passing through Liverpool’s ports each year, offering a safe and secure place to rest as well as practical and emotional support.

Wilson says that crew changes are now happening as international borders reopen, allowing many seafarers to finally return home.

“This week I was on board a ship and the crew were actually jovial – they’re almost back to what how they were before all this happened,” he explained.

Seafarers visiting Liverpool

“But the problems haven’t gone away: there still are some crew suffering problems with their mental health and feeling suicidal. I’m not saying they’ll go ahead with it, but they feel that enough is enough.”

Charitable organisation Human Rights at Sea has highlighted how seafarers face isolation, sleep disruption and exhaustion. Its recent survey revealed that a fifth have thought of self-harm following an unprecedented flow of pleas about non-payment of wages, contracts being renewed without consent and crews being left in foreign ports without money or flights home.

The organisation and LSC have each formally called on governments to recognise seafarers as key workers and to be given priority access to COVID vaccinations, a sentiment echoed by International Maritime Organization Secretary-General Kitack Lim this week.

Liverpool Seafarers Centre CEO John Wilson

One of the key concerns is that the majority of the world’s 1.2m seafarers tend to come from countries where vaccines are not readily available.

Given that these workers deliver 95pc of all UK goods – from fuel to food, clothes, electronics and medicines – and lead the nation’s exports, Wilson says they are “not being treated with the respect that they deserve”.

He added: “They aren’t seen as a vital workforce to vaccinate, but if it wasn’t for them, our goods and services just would not be transported.

“The Suez Canal situation showed the impact of one vessel getting stuck on the whole of the world’s trade: it made everyone sit up and take note of the importance of seafaring.

“They’ve got to be key workers – but they haven’t got full recognition as key workers.”
Source: Liverpool Seafarers Centre

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