Blog post

Abandoned at Sea: Sailors and COVID-19

Laleh Khalili, author of Sinews of War and Trade, reports on the over 100,000 sailors who are quarantined on their ships, unable to return home or access adequate medical care.

Jessie Kindig 1 May 2020

The stranded Indian crew members on board MSC Grandiosa, docked in Italy at present (Al Jazeera)

On the list of COVID-19 afflicted countries tallied by the Johns Hopkins University Corona Resource Centre there is one entry that is not like the others: a cruise ship, the Diamond Princess. With 712 confirmed cases (out of 3,711 passengers and crew) and thirteen dead, at the time of this writing the cruise ship’s number of cases falls somewhere between those of Latvia and Lebanon. The ship, which flies the British flag, was quarantined in Yokohama, Japan, on 4 February 2020, after which, the number of those onboard who tested positive rapidly escalated. Although the world press, and especially the press in Britain, focused on the stories of passengers complaining about the quarantine, very few news outlets reported that of the 712 confirmed cases, nearly 150 were members of the crew, many of them from Indonesia and the Philippines. The quarantine had only really been enacted for the passengers, with the crew members still being forced to work and sleep in close quarters, often sharing tiny cabins with other crew members, some of whom were symptomatic.

The Diamond Princess was owned by Carnival Cruises who also own another cruise ship company, Holland America, whose ship Zaandam was also beset by COVID-19. Before passengers began manifesting symptoms, the ship had visited Uruguay and the Falklands, with passengers disembarking and touring the ports. Then, the United States declared a COVID-19 emergency in mid-March and Holland America halted all cruises. By then it was too late for Zaandam. The passengers socialised, danced and ate together and wandered around the ship unimpeded, while the virus began to take hold. As ports in South America denied entry to cruise ships, though still allowing ships to refuel and restock foods, more and more elderly travellers began coughing. With hundreds of ill passengers and crew and four dead bodies onboard, Zaandam was turned away from port after port, eventually met by another Holland America ship, Rotterdam, which carried COVID tests, and medical staff and supplies. What the hundreds of crew members aboard Rotterdam did not know when their rendezvous began was that they were going to receive passengers from Zaandam. And with no comprehensive testing of the transfer passengers, the Rotterdam crew was exposed to the virus. Finally, after two weeks at sea, Panama allowed both ships to steam through the Canal, and the two cruise ships landed in Florida on 2 April 2020, the passengers released by Holland America to take commercial flights home with few precautions and little or no testing. The crew remained onboard, quarantined off the coast of Florida.

In Australia, 2,700 passengers were allowed to disembark from the stricken Ruby Princess on 19 March, despite many who exhibited symptoms of COVID-19. The cruise ship is thought to have been the source of at least half of all Australian cases. Hundreds of the ship’s passengers were diagnosed with COVID-19 and 18 have died. As of this writing, the ship is at anchor in Port Kembla, New South Wales, with 66 ill crew members on board, and eleven others evacuated to hospitals in Sydney.

The highest number of COVID cases per passenger, however, occurred on a luxury cruise ship specialising in travel to the South Pole. Only a day after a media report celebrated Antarctica’s status as the only continent unaffected by COVID-19, the cruise ship Greg Mortimer reported that nearly 60 percent of the 217 people onboard had tested positive for COVID-19. The ship had steamed towards Antarctica despite the closure of many South American ports and the declaration of pandemic status in countries around the world.

The fate of cruise ship companies has dimmed, at least temporarily. Carnival, the world’s largest cruise operator has suspended all cruises until the end of June and laid off 26% of its 150,000-strong workforce; they were not furloughed and therefore they have no access to bridging government funds or any certainties about whether they can be rehired by the company. Carnival’s stock prices are down 70% since January 2020. The US has denied a government bailout to Carnival, as the corporation is registered in the Bahamas, where it pays a paltry $71 million in taxes on $20.8 billion in revenue, at the astonishing rate of a fraction of one percent. The company faces investigations in Australia and lawsuits in the United States. However, Carnival has also seen a significant injection of capital from, inter alia, the Saudi state investment company, the Public Investment Fund. We know less about the fate of the tens of thousands of laid off workers.

An Unequal Maritime Economy

Ships have historically been significant vectors of pandemics. The influenza pandemic of 1918–1920 is thought to have been transported by merchant vessels and demobilising warships from continent to continent and coast to coast. As empires, global trade, and long-distance wars wind the corners of the world together ever more tightly, the same conduits of travel for passengers, soldiers, sailors, and cargos also act as pathways for pathogens. The naval ships of the world’s great military powers today still transmit illness across the seas. The aircraft carriers USS Theodore Roosevelt and the French Charles de Gaulle each have seen more than 650 of their sailors infected. No one knows whom they may have exposed in their transnational travels in the Pacific and the Mediterranean.

The effect of the pandemic on the maritime economy has been dramatic and well documented. Certainly, the firing of the commander of the Theodore Roosevelt and the scandal around the number of the infected sailors on the Charles de Gaulle—the most infectious case after the effects of the virus were well known—have been reported on the front pages of newspapers in the United States and France respectively. National GDPs have plunged (China’s first quarter 2020 GDP contracted by 6.8%), as has global trade. The World Trade Organisation predicted a fall in merchandise trade of between 13 and 32 percent. As much as 90 percent of this cargo is conveyed by ship to their final destination. In China, whose ports handle 30% of the planet’s freight, lockdowns forced ports to operate with skeleton crews, radically slowing both exports and imports, and in some places effectively shutting down the port entirely. Just as its main cargo ports were slowly returning to normal by the end of February, ports elsewhere were seeing drops in their cargo processing: in the busy port of Long Beach California, by a staggering 50 to 75 percent. Other container terminals in the US and Europe have reduced operations or shut down entirely. The Asia-Europe and Asia-Pacific route (and their reverse) have seen a massive drop in carriage, with hundreds of trips cancelled, and many other ships steaming with no cargo.

Not all maritime businesses are suffering, however. An oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia commenced in early March, with Saudi Aramco deploying its excess capacity to pump oil at the very moment when demand for petroleum and its products plummeted. The price of oil dropped so dramatically that, soon, fracking companies in the United States were facing bankruptcy and the benchmark price of West Texas Intermediate swooped below zero, meaning that traders, faced with saturated storage spaces, had to pay to not take delivery of produced oil. As oil flowed out of the ground and land-bound storage capacity was quickly filled, producers looked to seaborne storage. At the time of this writing, some 60 Very Large and Ultra Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs and ULCCs, some with carrying capacity of up to 2 million barrels) and many other smaller tankers have been chartered to store oil at sea, in what some call the greatest oil glut in history. The owners of ULCCs and VLCCs are able to charge rates as high as $335,000 per day and the stock of tanker companies skyrocketed by as much as 19 percent.

In all this, the pandemic has starkly delineated the inequalities of race, class, gender and geography worldwide. As in other pandemics, those communities already suffering from poverty, neglect, lower life expectancy and higher chronic illness and mortality rates are also those who are afflicted more severely and die in larger numbers because of the virus. However, one of the distinguishing features of COVID-19, as compared with past pandemics, has been that—at least in its earliest stages of transnational transmission—the most significant carriers of the virus have been the affluent, well-resourced, and seasoned international travellers from the global North. Though aeroplane travel has been the primary means of transmission, the stories recounted above of only a handful of ships indicates that leisure travellers aboard luxury cruise ships have carried the virus to the furthest reaches of the world, including the supposedly pristine Antarctica.

The social fractures the pandemic has revealed on land are well-reported: so many “essential workers” are working-class people of colour, and so many are extensively exposed day after day to the virus. In some US states, fully a third of hospitalised COVID patients are people of colour. In the Anglophone world, the proportion of medical professionals of colour who have died because of COVID far outstrips their percentages in the public or even among healthcare workers. As anxiety about the fraying supply chains—especially for food—increases, so does the callousness with which workers all along these chains are treated. Many employers are not providing factory, logistics, and warehouse workers, delivery drivers, and others in essential but badly paid services with paid sick leave if they are self-isolating and provide them with little—and more often no—protective wear as many are forced to work in close quarters with one another or close contact with consumers. One response of workers to the intensified rates of exploitation and COVID exposure has been to strike all along these supply chains. 

At sea, the feeling of abandonment is even more pronounced.

Once the passengers of “hot” cruise ships disembarked, public attention largely shifted away from the ships themselves. But many of those ships are at anchor with crew members on board, under a condition of quarantine familiar from past centuries. Some are aboard empty cruise ships, unable to dock at any ports, unable to fly home, sometimes with dwindling supplies. Some will remain onboard ships even when their contracts end and they are no longer paid; others have seen a reduction in pay while they continue to perform necessary maintenance on the docked ships. Aboard the Ruby Princess, some 1,400 crew members remain in isolation, unable to disembark. Of those, nearly ten percent have tested positive for COVID-19. The close quarters of a cruise ship (even with crew members now allowed to lodge in passenger rooms), and the daily delivery of food by handlers who could themselves be ill act as accelerants for the virus. Dozens of cruise ships near the US coast are similar hothouses for confined seafarers. On many of these ships, the non-US crew have their passports locked in the captain’s office, and even if they could book that rare flight home, they would not be allowed off the ship without their passports.

But it is not only the crews of cruise ships who are suffering such fates. The seafarers working cargo ships—container vessels, tankers, automobile carriers and the like—who come to the end of their contracts, sometimes after nine months at sea, are unable to return home. As many as 100,000 seafarers have come to the end of their contracts but remain aboard ships, unable to travel home because of restrictions on flights. Seafarers on smaller ships have been abandoned. Indian fishermen are afloat on the coast of Iran, unable to return to India, without any prospect of repatriation by the state, and with dwindling supplies of food. Towards the end of March, the Indian government advised its seafarers not to sign off ships or try to return to home as borders were closed. Of the sailors abandoned across the world, some 40,000 of them are Indian. Perhaps more alarmingly, even if a seafarer has been able to disembark, their arrival at home has sometimes been met with suspicion, and there have been instances of seafarers being stigmatised and shunned by their friends, neighbours, and landlords who fear they may be carrying the virus.

Ghost Ships and Abandoned Sailors

Hunger ships, abandoned sailors, and ghost ships haunt modern literary seascapes. The plaintive cry of the protagonist of B. Traven’s 1926 novel The Death Ship  was about everyday working conditions aboard ships, where seafarers felt they had no recourse, not even to their own governments:

We are always hungry because a shipping company cannot compete with the freight rates of other companies if the sailors get food fit for human beings. The ship must go to the ground port, because the company would be bankrupt if the insurance money would not save her. We do not die in shining armor, we the gladiators of today. We die in rags, without mattresses or blankets.... We die in silence, in the stoke-hold. We see the sea breaking in through the cracked hull. We can no longer go up and out. We are caught.

The feeling of being caught is now experienced by many. The most universal response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been containment: the contraction of spaces in which people can move and the closing of borders, confinement to one’s household, closed off businesses, a surveilled, policed and closed-off country. But within and amidst these fixed spaces, the poorer, the less powerful, and the racialised still have to move—as delivery drivers, logistics and transport operators, and any other essential workers commuting between work and home.

Migrants and refugees—many of whom, by necessity, are part of the maritime world—are often forgotten. The migrants and refugees trapped in island camps are one such exposed, endangered, and relatively invisible category. Another are mobile people at sea. With European countries closing their borders, the civil rescue NGO Sea Watch has reported that one migrant boat in the Mediterranean has sunk and three others are in distress. Meanwhile, in the absence of safe harbour guarantees by European ports, other rescue organisations have ceased operation. The coronavirus has provided the alibi the European states have always sought for denying entry to desperate migrants and for abandoning them to illness in camps.

The similar condition of invisibility and abandonment at sea now experienced by quarantined seafarers is only an intensification of the vulnerability constantly present in seafarers’ ordinary working conditions. Even at the best of times—that is,  working on ships registered in countries which observe health and safety rules, and labour and environmental regulations—seafarers are constantly exposed to physical injuries and mental pressures. Cargo ships almost never have doctors onboard, not to mention ventilators or other sophisticated medical equipment. Living spaces are cramped and crew members share cabins with one another. If a seafarer is injured or becomes seriously ill, they almost always have to wait until arrival at a port that will allow disembarkation to be hospitalised or repatriated. Modern cargo ports are often far from city centres and turnaround times for ship loading and unloading is now so swift that seafarers rarely experience adequate shore leave. Ordinary crew members often spend nine months at sea and a month off, while officers have shorter—but still months-long—contracts. Everyday seafaring is hard work, contoured by exhausting schedules, loneliness while confined in close quarters, melancholy and anxiety. A survey commissioned by the International Transport-Workers’ Federation and conducted by Yale University has shown that more seafarers suffered from depression and have contemplated suicide than the general population or any other occupation.

In a pandemic, with cities and borders closed, shore leave and crew changes not permitted by transit ports, welfare visits to ships disallowed, and no clear or consistent end in sight for such restrictions, the world’s 1.6 million seafarers have been feeling anxious—about their own fate, about their families’ health, about their income now and availability of work in the near future. Predictions about when or how global trade may recover are at best wildly speculative. At this moment, the only thing we know for certain is that the very scale and scope of mobility that has so dramatically defined this age of trade is also the factor that undergirds the abandonment and isolation of seafarers aboard ships. In what ways this moment will redefine the parameters of work, encourage yet more fantasies of automation or economies of scale, or ignite new waves of political mobilisation among seafarers remains to be seen.

Filed under: covid-19