Vaccinations of seafarers are going too slowly to prevent outbreaks on ships from causing more trade disruptions, endangering maritime workers, and potentially slowing economies trying to pull out of a pandemic slump.
Infections on vessels could further harm already strained global supply chains, just as the U.S. and Europe recover and companies start stocking up for Christmas. The shipping industry is sounding the alarm as infections increase and some ports continue to restrict access to seafarers from developing countries, which supply the majority of maritime workers but can’t vaccinate them.
All signs point to a worsening crisis on the oceans, at the same time the industry seemed to be emerging from months of port restrictions that hurt shipping firms’ ability to swap out crews and left hundreds of thousands stuck at sea for months.
“It’s a perfect storm,” says Esben Poulsson, chairman of the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), which represents ship owners. “With this new delta strain, there’s no doubt it’s setting us back and the situation is getting worse. Demand for products isn’t letting up, crew changes aren’t happening fast enough, and governments continue to stick their heads in the sand.”
Two recent events that interrupted essential ports and shipping routes show exactly how big the risks are. In May a sailor died and dozens of hospital workers in Indonesia were sickened with the delta variant of Covid-19 after a ship with an infected Filipino crew docked. About the same time, global shipping was thrown into chaos after one of China’s busiest ports in Shenzhen was shuttered for weeks because at least one dockworker was infected as part of a broader outbreak.
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