This is the second interview in the series a Fair Future for Seafarers, where one seafarer shares the tumultuous experience he faced when he returned home after nine long months, and how he fought the dilemma of quarantine when going back to work again.

It’s no secret that COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll on seafarer’s mental wellbeing. Last year, around August, there were at least 600,000 of them left stranded at sea due to travel restrictions imposed at the start of lockdown. The issue of ‘crew-
change’ rocked the shipping industry. However, now as the seafarers are gearing up to return to work, quarantine regulations have triggered uncertainties.

FrontM interviewed Chief Mate Michiel Ruter of an international container line on the issue which has been a cause of concern for the seafarer fraternity resuming work, post-pandemic. The excerpts…

How long have you been in the industry?

I have been sailing for 11 years now, and have circum-navigated the globe twice. However, this voyage during the pandemic has been the toughest.

What about sailing has changed after COVID-19?

Oh! Everything has changed, it is no more the same and probably it’s not going to be the same for many more years to come. You cannot step out of the ship even at the ports. You cannot shake hands with those coming on board, sanitisers and masks are now more valuable than anything and the protocols have gone even more stringent. I know that these changes are being made to keep everybody safe but it adds to the already terrible state of loneliness of a seafarer. Away from home we work so hard, counting each day and now, not being able to get down the ports and into the city even for a couple of hours does have a negative psychological impact on our minds. It feels like a jail with enough food and facilities.

What do you suggest that the authorities concerned can do to help the situation?

Certainly, something that would compensate for the feeling of being stuck away from civilisation. Something concrete definitely needs to come through from the authorities. Maybe some kind of video entertainment for the overworked mariners during tough situations can provide some relief.

You came back home after nine long months, what was that one moment during your extended stay that did give you hope and positivity?

In those times the worst thing were uncertainties. When would the flights start again, when would the borders open again, etc. Such questions could haunt every seafarer onboard.

Amidst this, one day one of the senior officials from our organisation spoke to all of us over a video call. That definitely meant something, it meant that they are trying to get us home and that moment was strong enough to give all of us some hope.

What is this dilemma about quarantine?

This is not related to my voyage, it is actually related to the time when I was asked to join again. The authorities have put in place a number of rules and regulations pertaining to quarantine of a seafarer before joining a ship. However, the rules have been made without ensuring the ground realities and because of which several seafarers like me are suffering.

There is a rule to quarantine and take RTPCR test before joining a vessel which definitely makes sense considering the safety of the entire crew aboard. I was quarantined in a hotel five days before I was to join a vessel. As per the rule, I was tested negative before being allowed into the hotel room. Another test was carried out after two days and they found me to be positive.

Here is where my dilemma with quarantine started. It is beyond understanding that how can a person who was negative and never stepped out of that small room with no windows tested positive? Certainly, I got infected inside that room but there are no rules in place where I can plead. I simply had to stay in that very small, zero ventilation room for another 10 days before they re-tested my sample and found me to be negative.

Either of the two cases are definitely possible explanations to my condition – one, I got infected while inside that room and second the testing was not carried out in a proper way, could be a false positive. But there is no way that the poor seafarers stuck in that tiny room could claim any of these possibilities. What happened to me was unfortunate and should not happen to any other seafarers and therefore I would like to bring to the attention of the authorities concerned that there is certainly a need to define the criteria and penalties in such cases.

Would you still want to go sailing?

Yes, it is something that I do for a living and whatever be the scenario I will have to go to work. It is therefore very much needed that there be a system of checks and balances related to the procedures that have recently been defined as the rules during the Covid times.

Any message that you have for the shipping industry or the authorities?

These times of COVID were certainly never predicted but they are the reality today, and lives are at stake. Along with the protocols there should be a methodology to carry out every procedure in a proper manner. There has to be a mechanism of cross-checking so that no other seafarer is left in the lurch as I was in that small room with no windows.