For years shipowners and others within the industry have bemoaned the fact that as far as the wider population goes, shipping is to all intents and purposes invisible.
Almost the only times that ships feature in the news is when there is a major casualty, when the latest largest vessel in the world arrives at a local port or more often when shipping is being blamed for causing global warming, polluting the Arctic or causing 400,000 excess deaths due to respiratory problems caused by ships’ exhausts.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic the maritime world has appeared fairly regularly on mainstream news media but on every occasion this has been in connection with cruise ships. From the moment the Diamond Princess was quarantined on 4 February in Yokohama with several confirmed cases on board amongst passengers and crew, images of passengers standing on their balconies were beamed into homes around the world on an almost daily basis.
Later attention switched to other cruise vessels and depending upon the location of media outlets the ships were either seen as a threat to local health or as a virtual prison for the passengers. But since the last cruise ship disembarked its passengers, interest in ships and shipping has waned.
Almost nothing has been reported on how the shipping industry is continuing to carry food and commodities around the globe and allowing what industrial activity has been possible to continue. Almost no one has questioned how the raw materials, be it coal gas or oil, needed for power production have been delivered to power stations allowing people in lockdown to continue having access to the electricity that has been so essential in permitting working from home, video conferencing and an internet connection for social purposes when leaving the home or meeting others in public have been so curtailed.
Were it only the transport of goods that was being ignored then our industry could probably accept that, but it is the fact that the problems that seafarers are experiencing is completely overlooked is hard to accept. Within the shipping bubble, there have been dozens of initiatives, news stories, announcements and pronouncements by organisations at every level up to the IMO and the wider UN organisation.
Google the terms seafarer and COVID-19 together and more than 2.6 million results are returned. Yet look through them closely and it is noticeable that almost all are from shipping industry organisations and the maritime press.
Very occasionally there is an odd item that appears on the list that links to a mainstream news website but while the story is valid it is mostly included in sections of the website that ordinary people would rarely see – the business section, local news, or in the case of the BBC in its World Service section. Very few of these would appear in the main news bulletins of the day.
So while we in the industry believe we are doing something by asking for seafarers to be recognised as key workers, the general public are hardly aware of their existence.
At some point in time, the COVID-19 pandemic will come to an end and the world will slowly revert to normality. There may be some changes in work practices as we have discovered in our own industry with remote surveys and online meetings and maybe the general public will have a little more respect for key workers.
Sadly it is very unlikely that seafarers will be counted among them as far as most people are concerned.
Perhaps the best that seafarers can hope for is that in our own industry a little more thought might be given to their welfare and employment conditions.