Coronavirus causing challenges for crews as IMO calls for conventions to be respected

Malcolm Latarche

Malcolm Latarche · 24 February 2020


A Singapore-based ship manager has claimed that the impact of the coronavirus epidemic on those on the frontline of international business – the seafarers that man the ships that facilitate global trade – has largely been overlooked. Similar sentiments have been expressed by the IMO which has sent a Circular Letter advising Member States and others on implementation and enforcement of relevant IMO Instruments.

The IMO letter urges flag states, port state authorities and control regimes, companies and shipmasters to cooperate, in the current context of the outbreak, to ensure that, where appropriate, passengers can be embarked and disembarked, cargo operations can occur, ships can enter and depart shipyards for repair and survey, stores and supplies can be loaded, certificates can be issued and crews can be exchanged.


The letter reminds that the principles of avoiding unnecessary restrictions or delay on port entry to ships, persons and property on board are contained in articles I and V and section 6 of the annex to IMO’s Facilitation Convention.

Captain Rajesh Unni, CEO and Founder of Synergy Group, commented, “Seafarers are working under tremendous pressure and doing an amazing job keeping world trade moving. But many are, understandably, anxious about when they can see families again because of restrictions on crew changes and quarantine periods being enforced on arrival at some countries.”

The deadly virus has seen severe restrictions put in place on seafarers calling at ports across the Asia Pacific region. Crew manning the world’s commercial fleet of tankers, commodity-carrying bulk carriers and container ships are not allowed to leave vessels when calling at ports in China, the epicentre of the virus.

Restrictions preventing crew leaving the ship or denying seafarers access to a visa-on-arrival are also in place at a range of countries including Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Russia, Australia and South Korea.

The logistics of managing crew changes when there are restrictions in place in so many countries has meant in some cases diverting vessels to intermediate ports where crew changes are possible. “It’s very challenging on some routes because crew changes are not allowed at either end,” said Captain Unni. “But seafarers are a durable bunch. We’re very proud of how they are coping and we are providing all necessary support. “I must reiterate that although crew logistics is proving very demanding, we are not facing any operational issues, as of now, and that is testament to the outstanding professionalism of our seafarers in very trying conditions.”

Synergy employs approximately 10,000 seafarers and manages a diversified fleet of almost 300 vessels including some of the most sophisticated container vessels and gas carriers in operation. Its local offices around the Asia Pacific are working closely with public health authorities to ensure compliance with health precautions and measures including quarantine. Counselling services have also been made available both to Synergy employees and the wider shipping community via the company’s free mental wellness iCall helpline.

“The welfare and safety of our teams onboard vessels is always of paramount importance,” said Captain Unni. “Our partners at iCall – the free, confidential, multilingual helpline for seafarers and their families - have been updated and trained counsellors are ready to provide any mental health and psychosocial support that crew need. I urge anyone who needs help and support to use this service.”

Synergy crew have been advised to reduce contact with shore personnel and follow standard precautions including maintaining meticulous personal hygiene regimes as recommended by coronavirus authorities. “The fact that the coronavirus epidemic has effected more people, more quickly than the SARS outbreak 17 years ago is extremely concerning,” said Captain Unni. “In light of which we have all our contingency plans, including, infection control procedures, in place. “While we wait and watch, we are extremely grateful for our teams onboard for understanding the situation and for keeping world-trade moving in this difficult time.”

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