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Editorial: A White-Knuckle Ride

Port Wings, 9 Sept 2020:

The COVID-19 pandemic has been especially cruel on seafarers, often trapped on ships for months on end far away from their loved ones. Those who were looking forward to going home in around March or April basically couldn’t, as permission for crew changes were denied in almost every port around the world. For a while it looked as if restrictions would be lifted, but many places are closing back down again due to a surge in new cases.

The personal experience of a shipping agent paints a vivid picture of the current crisis and how shipping agents are negotiating all sorts of hurdles to get exhausted and homesick crew members repatriated, and new ones boarded.

While seafarers have been bearing the brunt of restrictions, shipping agents and crewing managers the world over have been busy trying to find solutions and workarounds.

We can see clearly that without shipping there is no modern life. We can live without commercial aviation but not without seaborne transportation. Although the pandemic has also highlighted, with the crew change challenge, the fact that, as an industry, we are not as influential as we need to be. Our seafarers are not being treated how they should be – as vital workers in a vital industry.

Covid-19 has perhaps had one benefit. It has allowed us to take a step back and assess what we need to do – and how to do it

Shipping is operating within a new normal; even before Covid-19 triggered an unprecedented social and economic change, we were already dealing with the impact of IMO2020 and facing the challenges of transitioning an industry to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

For shipping agents, the pandemic was totally unexpected and it’s been a huge challenge, scrambling to adapt while trying to continue to provide the best services for customers.

With the lockdown, crew changes suddenly became a thing of the past, only at most other ports around the world. Later, as the restrictions eased the shipping agents were able to do a couple of changeovers. The biggest challenge was the terminal, with no taxis or transport providers allowed in. Then with poor flight availability and the terminal schedule and so on, it soon became too uncertain.

Next problem: the on-signers needed the proper polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test, A lot of jobs are 90% boredom and 10% sheer terror. An agent’s job is exactly the reverse. And that weekend was 100% sheer terror! But they just had to battle through and find a way to make it happen.

In some ports, the shipping agent should bear the responsibility to return the seafarer to his ship or provide a safe medical shelter if the Covid test was positive, in accordance with the instructions imposed by the health authorities.

While it was a white-knuckle ride, it most probably won’t be the last and agents around the world are facing the same kind of situation on a daily basis.

Few people see how much work it takes to pull off what seems impossible. But it’s important to remember shipping agents aren’t alone.

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