Unable to Return Home for Over a Yr, How Covid-19 & India-China Tension are Turning Fatal for Seafarers

Suresh Karmakar (name changed) is the Chief Officer, who leads a 25-member crew of a cargo ship. A few months ago, when the novel coronavirus pandemic broke out across the world, he started to maintain a diary of his mental state and that of his shipmates. Being a seafarer, which is often listed among the most stressful professions in the world, became even more stressful after the outbreak. Crew and senior officers were not allowed to disembark since borders of many countries were sealed and the new crews couldn't take over.

At the same time, transportation of goods, of which 90% is seaborne, during the ongoing crisis became even more important. Many seafarers, including those from India, continue to work on ships months after they were supposed to be relieved, in increasingly difficult circumstances, despite many problems, including health emergencies among crew members and their families back home. Karmakar shared some of his notes with News18.

"We are monitoring body temperatures daily and we are well aware of the concurrent pandemic precautions and its consequences...Well, like any other industry, shipping is affected too. Crew change, port operations, precautions...Most important is to keep the morale of the ship staff high at all times...Internet helps in keeping in touch. But it's imperative that we filter out the paranoia from the actual fear. By keeping the morale high, we can minimise problems on board." This was before Karmakar, like many of us, realised the full potential of the damage that the coronavirus was going to cause.

The following notes were taken around 10 days ago:

"The crew is getting worried as stress and anxiety keep mounting day by day. People have finished about 4-5 months extra on-board...We are pretty used to being homesick all our lives, we ourselves have made this choice of being a seafarer. But during this pandemic, our physical presence at home is utmost required now. But when we realise that we are stranded and have really no hopes of getting relieved sooner, depression is slowly creeping upon day by day."

In the last conversation with News18, Karmakar, who did not want his real name to be disclosed, was worried about the rising tensions between India and China. "Is it gonna be a war-like situation?" he asked. Many seafarers manning ships that are safely moving vital supplies including food, fuel and medical goods around the world are anxious about the safety of their families, especially given the limited internet and cellphone connectivity on ships.

"We have never been so impacted, ever," said Chirag Bahri, director of regions, International Seafarers' Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN), an international NGO that assists seafarers and their families. "There is so much anxiety and worry, about the well-being of your family, about your job loss. It's a pretty stressful time for those who have been on ships for much much longer than they were supposed to be."

"It's not as if the rest of the people are not under stress. “But most of us at least have our weekends to look forward to. Imagine the lives seafarers are living right now. It has been months since they came down to solid earth. They’re working on this floating industry for the past many months 24/7. Weather is often tough, you can’t stand straight on the deck, forget eating or sleeping properly. Many of those who were supposed to be relieved after six months have been working without a break for additional four to five months now. There’s a limit to the sort of stress everyone can take. Beyond a point you can break…become a threat to yourself and to your colleagues,” Bahri said.

He and his colleagues have been getting flooded with calls from seafarers over the past few months. “There was this one case of a ship crew member whose wife was expecting. He had spent around a year on the ship. Both of them were under stress. The wife more so because, due to the restrictions in her city, there was nobody beside her. The stress caused her to deliver prematurely. The seafarer couldn’t stop weeping when he spoke to me…In times like this you feel so helpless…You may have all the money in the world but what is it worth at times like this…We did all we could but it still took us 15 days to get the boy to his wife.”

There have also been reports about suicides of seafarers, both men and women, but it’s hard, mental health professionals like Bahri say, to pinpoint it to one any phenomenon. “We just direct the seafarers on how they need to maintain and manage their stress. What all they need to do. How they can engage themselves in different activities. We cannot change the situation. All we can do is try to increase your resilience in fighting it,” Bahri said.

Iqbal Singh Bhogal considers himself lucky to have spent only 75 more days away from home than he was supposed to. That extra time was full of anxiety but at least he’s back with his family now, he says.

“We are front-line workers moving vital supplies around the world. I don’t think many people realise how vital our contribution is in keeping the world from falling apart right now. Let me try to tell how hard the last few weeks were on me. I lost my elder brother on April 10 and I couldn’t attend his last rites. I was supposed to be at my home by the first week of April. Two of my other crew members also lost their family members,” he said. Bhogal added that he is at an advanced age of nearly 60 in which he needs access to his regular blood pressure medication.

“I can’t get it everywhere. I keep a month’s dosage extra with me every time we sail, but this time I ran out of medicines. I was put up in a hotel in Saudi Arabia when Ramzan started. I’m a vegetarian and that was a difficult time for me diet-wise also. The people responsible at the top have trouble taking care of our soldiers, we don’t even expect them to take care of us,” he added.

Aditya Giri, director of Humans at Sea and a former seafarer, says that there was another side of this problem, which was being discussed much less. Those who had finished their jobs and paid through their nose to get into the merchant navy were sitting at home with debt piling on them.

“There are people who have paid agents to get jobs on ships, those who have sold their land to get into this profession, which they hope will get them enough financial security, but they’re sitting at home doing nothing. There was a case of a crew member in the Philippines that I recently wrote about who is driving a cab to support his family,” Giri said.

On Friday he posted a story on his website (themaritimepost) about a 23-year-old boy from Uttarakhand who, after finding out that his joining was further delayed because of the Covid-19 crisis, committed suicide by jumping off a flyover. Experts believe that the situation will take at least another four to five more months to return to normalcy. Suresh Karmakar's latest note, which is addressed to no one in particular, reads, "We have been responsible enough to deal with it until now...Now it’s your turn...Get us home."