‘Collateral damage’: tortuous ordeal of the seafarers left marooned by Covid The pandemic caused chaos within global shipping and crew members from some of the poorest nations paid a high price

‘Collateral damage’: tortuous ordeal of the seafarers left marooned by Covid
The pandemic caused chaos within global shipping and crew members from some of the poorest nations paid a high price


A man smiles while hugging his daughters
Kiribati seafarer Temware Iotebwa is reunited with his daughters Sherlene, 11, Eilene, 6, and three-year-old AyMe. They had not seen their father for almost two years
Among the hundreds of thousands of seafarers left stranded by Covid-19, perhaps none have faced an ordeal as extreme as that of the i-Kiribatis.
Last weekend, after a year-long odyssey across continents – shuttled between foreign nations and locked out of their homeland as waves of coronavirus closed down previously safe routes – that ordeal finally came to an end.
In a palm-fringed courtyard in Tarawa, the capital of the small Pacific island nation of Kiribati, tears and shouts of joy greeted 141 seafarers during an emotional reunion with families they had not seen for almost two years.
Temware Iotebwa, 39, said that at first he did not spot his children – his son, Tawati, 15, and daughters Sherlene, 11, Eilene, 6, and three-year-old AyMe – in the crowd. But their shouts quickly drew tears to his eyes.
Temware with his wife, Takentemwanoku Matiota
Iotebwa with his wife, Takentemwanoku Matiota. ‘She was very worried,’
“When my younger kids first saw me, they were shouting and calling my name,” says Iotebwa, who last saw his children in February 2020. “Hearing their voices and seeing their faces brought tears of joy to my eyes. That Sunday was one of my happiest days. We laughed and we cried, and I got a lot of hugs.”
Iotebwa, an able seaman, had worked a month of a nine-month contract on the Hamburg Süd/Maersk container ship MV Monte Pascoal, when the pandemic was declared. He disembarked in Belgium, before being flown to Fiji.
He and his crewmates have spent the past nine months in limbo, sharing cramped hotel rooms and unable to tell their families when they would see them again.
Of the estimated 1.7 million seafarers worldwide, more than half are from developing countries such as Kiribati, a low-lying nation of 33 islands with one of the lowest standards of living in Oceania and a poor healthcare system. Concerned that it might not be able to cope, Kiribati responded to the pandemic in 2020 by closing its borders. The strategy successfully kept Covid cases at zero.
But for Iotebwa and his fellow i-Kiribati seafarers, it meant a year of hell, caught in the middle of protracted negotiations between the shipping companies, the International Chamber of Shipping and a Kiribati government fearful of the risks of allowing the return of seafarers who may have been exposed to Covid.
When the system breaks down, there’s no safety net
Steve Cotton, ITF
Finally, in April 2021, after months of talks, the Kiribati government agreed to repatriate the seafarers, who would first be quarantined in Fiji. But then Fiji saw a sudden spike in coronavirus cases and the Kiribati government reversed its policy. After allowing about 60 seafarers back into the country, the authorities closed the border again, with no exceptions.
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Iotebwa had just been told he was about to be flying home when it happened. It was his lowest moment, he says.
“My excitement turned to hopelessness when I heard the news,” he says over a video link from Tarawa. “The waiting time turned from days to months. My kids missed me very much and I missed them.”
His family were worried too; the Grand Melanesian Hotel in the Fijian town of Nadi, paid for by the shipping company, was overcrowded and uncomfortable with no privacy.
“It felt like a prison,” he says. “My wife, Takentemwanoku Matiota Iotebwa, constantly reminded me to be careful and to stay away from people to avoid getting infected. She was very worried.”
They kept their spirits up by playing games of croquet and tug-of-war in the lobby.
Two crewmen in a empty cargo ship's hold
Crew members prepare a ship’s hold before loading. One union leader raised concerns of a lack of understanding of the ‘hardship of individual seafarers’. Photograph: furundul/Alamy
He is happy now he is back at home, but there is sadness, too. One of his friends lost his father, another his wife. Marriages broke up under the strain of waiting and the ordeal has taken a financial toll on the families. The seafarers are often their families’ main breadwinners and a source of remittances. They stopped being paid in early 2021, and now worry about their employment prospects with borders remaining closed.
“I don’t blame anyone because this pandemic can happen anytime and anywhere,” says Iotebwa. “But if my government was smart, it could have found other ways to bring us seafarers home sooner. Other poorer countries arranged their seafarers’ return immediately while still on lockdown.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) held a crisis meeting this month with transport organisations “as a matter of urgency” to protect the rights of those working at sea. Seafarers provided remittances to 12% of households in Kiribati in 2010, and the sector is an important source of employment.
Pastor Matthias Ristau, a chaplain at the German Seamen’s Mission, helped care for 150 of i-Kiribati’s seafaring community who were stuck in a youth hostel in Hamburg for months before being flown to Fiji. “I could see these were really tough guys but after so many months at sea they were already exhausted,” he says.
“And all the time hearing about families breaking, marriages splitting … I know it will take them a long time to finally arrive at home mentally.”
Natalie Shaw, director of employment affairs at the International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), says the plight of the i-Kiribati is the biggest challenge she has faced in 18 years – including piracy.
Wendell Pineda, a Filipino
Filipino Wendell Pineda, who works with the engine crew. After his first contract he went home, spent three weeks in quarantine, and before he could see his wife and two-year-old daughter, his company requested his urgent return to sea. Photograph: Aljon Malanjit/ITF Seafarers’ Trust
Shaw, who was instrumental in negotiations between the Kiribati government, German and Danish shipping authorities and various UN agencies, said it had caused sleepless nights for her. An additional 110 i-Kiribati men remain stranded.
“I won’t be happy until we get the rest home,” she says. “We’ve had families in tears, thinking you don’t care. Every time we started to plan we got a new challenge, which makes it really difficult. There were multidimensional, multicountry challenges.
“It became a lower priority for the powers that could have made it happen. Unfortunately,” she adds, “the seafarers are collateral damage in all of this.”
Most of the seafarers worked on ships operated by Hamburg Süd, a German container line now owned by the Danish firm AP Møller-Maersk. In March the seafarers, who were scattered across the world, were flown to Denmark and Hamburg by the shipping companies, in order to group them together for vaccinations and to make repatriation easier.
René Pedersen, managing director of AP Møller-Maersk, said they had seafarers stranded in Denmark, Egypt, Korea, Malaysia and Australia.
““We entered into a dialogue with different governments” he says. “But the Kiribati government was very determined: the border was closed and we could not repatriate them.”
Finally, in late 2021, Kiribati agreed the seafarers could sail home from Fiji on a small cruise ship, the MV Reef Endeavour, as long as they quarantined before landing on Kiribati soil. It took eight weeks, plus a two-week quarantine at either end.
“It’s an indication of how fragile the global maritime industry is,” says Steve Cotton, general secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), who worked with the ICS to help the stranded seafarers. “We take labour from the global south – that definitely has cost advantages. But when the system breaks down, there’s no safety net.”
The new action group led by the WHO and the ILO includes representatives from the ITF, the ICS, International Air Transport Association (Iata), and the International Road Transport Union. Together, they represent 65 million seafarers, aircrew and drivers.
A cargo container ship waits off the coast to enter the Port of Long Beach
A container ship off California’s coast. Crews have had to spend months at sea during the pandemic. Photograph: Patrick T Fallon/AFP/Getty
One of the group’s concerns is that many of those workers’ home nations lag significantly behind richer nations in vaccinations. Although the situation has improved recently, with an estimated 50% of seafarers vaccinated and the number working beyond their contracts dropping to 4.7% from 7%, the arrival of the Omicron variant has upended matters again, with at least 56 countries reimposing travel restrictions since its emergence.