IMO Declares Shipping Activities Essential Services: An African Perspective

The world has experienced unprecedented disruptions to trade and businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic and shipping activities have not been exempted. At the height of the pandemic, countries all over the world, including African countries, instituted partial or total lockdowns and placed restrictions on movement of people. These lockdowns also affected shipping activities as ports were either totally or partially shut and port activities significantly reduced. Crew changes were also prohibited as countries took proactive steps to constrain the spread of the pandemic. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO), in response to the challenges facing shipping activities as a result of the instituted lockdowns has recently declared shipping activities essential services.

The Rationale for Declaring Shipping Activities ‘Essential Services’

Each month, about 150,000 seafarers need to be changed over to and from the ships in which they operate to ensure compliance with international maritime regulations. Due to the ongoing restrictions, large numbers of seafarers have had to extend their services onboard ships after many months at sea, as they are unable to be replaced after long tours of duty or be repatriated by aircraft to their homes. South Africa, Rwanda and Nigeria are some African countries that prohibited crew changes, classifying seafarers as high-risk. Prohibiting crew changes, an act contrary to the provisions of international maritime regulations ensuring safety, health and welfare of shipping crew has tremendous impact on the health and lives of the seafarers. When trapped on ships, seafarers are at heightened risk of infection and mental illness while those remaining onshore are unable to earn a living to support themselves and their families.

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