November 27, 2014

No shore leave, the default setting

I took over command of a container ship in Guam at the height of the SARS epidemic more than ten years ago. The crew were going crazy. The ship was on a China- Saipan/Guam fixed run and their shore leave had been effectively stopped. This was because China was SARS hit, so the managers had declared no shore leave there. At the other end, Saipan and Guam had banned shore leave for ships that had called China in the last month. Consequently, the crew had not stepped ashore for many months.

Fortunately, the run changed soon after I joined, and everybody heaved a sigh of relief.

The Ebola scare has gone the same way. Regulators and government agencies have got into the act- the Philippines Overseas Employment Administration, the powerful government nodal agency for Filipino overseas workers- has mandated that no Filipino seamen will go ashore in Ebola hit countries in Africa. The IMO has, as usual, published guidelines. (The Indian DGS put out a circular in September basically referring to these).

What is ironic about all this is that the industry and its regulators seem to recommend- explicitly- that operational steps taken under the ISPS regulations- meant for ship and port security- be extended to a ship’s response to Ebola. I find this notion- using a failed enterprise to handle something it was never intended to anyway- especially amusing. The ISPS Code, once again, becomes a lazy answer to everything.

The matter is a serious one, I admit. The disease can be fatal (thank god it is not something that can be transmitted like a virus) so what are shipmanagers and shipmasters to do? Stopping shore leave seems prudent and protects the ship and its crew. After all, airports are screening all passengers coming from Africa, right? After all, Intermanager has recommended that “Masters should give careful consideration to granting any shore leave while in impacted ports,” right?

And the World Health Organization has declared the Ebola virus disease outbreak in West Africa ‘a Public Health Emergency of International Concern’, has it not?

Therein lies one problem- in an atmosphere of overkill and panic, the WHO should be the last people we should listen to. This is the same WHO that, a few years ago, was in the dock because some of its top functionaries planned and panicked the world about the dangers of the swine flu pandemic. The problem was that these same folk were getting huge kickbacks from drug companies, who made billions of dollars selling vaccines to countries that stockpiled the vaccine because of the overstated scare. The WHO has therefore a corrupt history of exaggerating risks and keeping people afraid; it cannot be trusted to tell us the truth about the actual risks of Ebola. This is something everybody in the shipping industry needs to understand, including the many that are today copying and pasting WHO Ebola information into their emails and shooting them off to ships as gospel.

I do not blame shipowners or Masters for possible overkill after Ebola; I have been in the same position and done the same things myself, including banning crew shore leave. It is prudent and it is wise. It protects the crew and the ship. It allows commerce to go on. It is the path of least resistance.

Crew shore leave seems to be a privilege more than a right anyway; it is stopped for many reasons or, more often, no reasons at all. In my experience, it is sometimes stopped just because it is inconvenient to the port or one of its minor clerical functionaries. As a result, ‘no shore leave’ has become the default setting on many runs or in many ports around the world.

The actions of many countries and their ports- that they justify using the ISPS Code that I consider useless- have been the primary cause why so many ships appear more like prisons to crews today.  Stopping shore leave because of Ebola seems to be a much more legitimate exercise to all of us. Even to me.

Still and all, this kind of reaction is disquieting, because it feeds the thinking that shore leave is something that can and should be stopped at the first sign of trouble. Because it reinforces the fallacy- alas, so common today- that seamen have no real right to go ashore, even if it is to make a phone call home.



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