Seafarer access to medical care a matter of life and death

The secretary-general of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), Kitack Lim, and the director-general of the International Labour Organization (ILO), Guy Rider, have issued a joint statement (Circular Letter No.4204/Add.42) calling for port and coastal states to facilitate the prompt disembarkation of seafarers for medical care as a matter of “life or death”; to prioritise seafarers for Covid-19 vaccination; and to designate seafarers as key workers, recognising their valuable contribution to world trade.

The statement says seafarers are facing difficulties in accessing medical care and highlights the “moral obligation to ensure seafarers can access medical care ashore without delay, whenever they need it, and to extend medical assistance on board should the need arise by allowing qualified doctors and dentists to visit ships. It is also important that a medical assessment be conducted prior to administering any treatment, which could include telemedicine assessment provided by international health providers.”

“Receiving such care can be a matter of life or death for seafarers who fall ill while working on ships. The international community should do its utmost to support those who have maintained the global supply chain under pandemic conditions over the last 18 months and keep carrying on often despite enormous personal hardships,” say Lim and Rider.

The statement notes that “almost 14 months after issuing the Recommendations for port and coastal states on the prompt disembarkation of seafarers for medical care ashore during the Covid-19 pandemic (Circular Letter No.4204/Add.23), seafarers are still struggling to access such care when needed. Advocacy from member states, the maritime industry, social partners and seafarers themselves has once again brought the plight of seafarers to the fore.”

As enshrined in ILO’s 2006 Maritime Labour Convention (MLC 2006), it is the duty of member states to ensure seafarers on board ships in their territory are given access to medical facilities ashore should they require immediate medical or dental care. The joint statement once again urges governments to recognise the strategic importance of the maritime sector and to designate seafarers as key workers and to treat them as such by providing access to medical care.

Governments are urged to prioritise seafarers in their national Covid-19 vaccination programmes, and to offer WHO-approved emergency use listing (EUL) vaccines to ensure their vaccination status is recognised internationally. The ILO and IMO heads also encourage governments to recognise the role other marine personnel play in facilitating global trade and, wherever possible, to also vaccinate them on a priority basis. So far, 24 countries have implemented seafarer vaccination programmes, or signalled their intent to do so, in designated ports within their jurisdictions.

The joint statement concludes: “We are extremely grateful to these countries but urge more to step forward to accelerate, in particular, the vaccination of seafarers serving international shipping. Government agencies, industry, labour, and seafarer welfare groups continue to work assiduously to facilitate and/or deliver vaccines for seafarers. However, much remains to be done. We shall continue to work with our sister UN agencies, governments and industry bodies to address the ongoing needs of seafarers and to safeguard their basic rights, so that they may continue to facilitate the global economy.”

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This article was written and/or edited by the UK-based MIN team.

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