As Suez crisis fades, we must not forget pandemic's hidden heroes — seafarers
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Do you remember the Ever Given; the 200,000-ton megaship that ran aground in the Suez Canal and blocked it for a week?

Ask that question now, and people will say ‘of course’. The ship’s fate has been headline news ever since she became wedged in the Suez during a sandstorm. But in a few months’ time many people will have forgotten about the Ever Given, and will not give shipping in general a second thought. However, this very rare event in one of the world’s prominent trading pinch points has shone a spotlight on just how important a role shipping plays in our day to day lives. People, and politicians, must not forget that. This Ever Given incident should indeed be remembered, as the moment when governments truly recognized the inestimable contribution of the world’s seafarers.

Shipping operates out of sight and out of mind for most. 1.7 million seafarers navigate arduous voyages to keep global trade moving. Yet making the link between the food on the shelves of your local supermarket, or the gas at your local filling station, is not always easy. When the Ever Given blocked the Suez Canal — the leading trade route between Asia and Europe — that changed. The canal sees 50 ships a day pass through, representing 12 percent of global trade. As the backlog of waiting ships grew, everyone was asking the same question: how will this affect me? It’s a question governments have not asked when it comes to seafarers themselves.

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There are plenty of groups who have made great contributions to fighting the global pandemic without receiving the recognition they merit. But I struggle to think of a group that has done more, for less appreciation, than the world’s seafarers. Without the work of these men and women, global trade would grind to a halt. Ninety percent of goods that are traded around the world travel by sea at some point. Especially in the pandemic, keeping supply chains robust and reliable has been vital for countries to fight the virus, or to begin the long road to recovery.

For their reward, seafarers have been negatively targeted by COVID regulations. In 2020, the process of crew change, where 100,000 crew need to disembark and board ships each month, was decimated by overzealous immigration controls and the near shutdown of international air travel. Crew members who by the very nature of their jobs are in isolation, were forced to work well over their tours of duty and were hung out to dry by the governments that were happy to receive the goods they transported. Two hundred thousand crew remain affected to this day. Now, growing demands that seafarers show vaccine passports or have unrecommended vaccines threaten to derail any progress that has been made. Well over half of the world’s seafarers come from countries where they may not be expected to be vaccinated until 2024, making ships’ crews into political collateral damage.

Seafarers deliver vaccines and PPE — increasingly so as the capacity of air freight decreases with the return of international tourism. This in itself should be enough for politicians to take the simple step of recognizing seafarers as key workers. Yet only 55 countries have done so. This recognition would bring two-fold benefits. Firstly, seafarers would no longer be caught up in the COVID red tape that inhibits them from playing their crucial role in the global supply chain. Secondly, crews would not be ignored again when it comes to vaccinations. Vaccinations can be easily done either in their own countries or at major shipping hubs around the world. Industry is willing to work with United Nations agencies to make this happen.

Inevitably, lessons will have to be learned from the Ever Given. It is too early to speculate, but it should go without saying I hope that the sheer physical and emotional toll the world has placed on ships’ crews did not play a part. But before the findings of any inquiry, I can tell governments everywhere the most important lesson to remember right now. It is to properly recognize the efforts of the world’s seafarers. In the meantime, the next time you fill up your car, do your grocery shopping, or get called for a vaccine, remember how those vital goods got to where they needed to be.

Guy Platten is secretary general of International Chamber of Shipping.