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Jade is only one of thousands of seafarers who are unable to leave their ships to come home. 

Jade saw his parents—and the rest of his family—wave to him from Bay 4, just outside the Ninoy Aquino International Airport 3. He had recently completed his contract and had just landed in the Philippines. He was finally home.

Then Jade saw her: a beautiful woman in an elegant beige top that complemented her dark and silky hair. He saw the piercing eyes he missed staring into. It was Joy, his girlfriend, there to surprise him. This was no ordinary disembarkation. For the first time, someone was there to welcome him home with a romantic embrace.

It was the best day of his life.

Except—it never happened.

Crew changes on hold

Just days before Jade’s repatriation from the United Kingdom, the unexpected happened. His company informed the Captain that crew changes were put on hold until the 1st of May, 2020, because of COVID-19.

Just like the other seafarers whose disembarkation got canceled, he felt dismayed. He had been excited for his three-day beach vacation with Joy in Puerto Pricessa, Palawan. He had also already planned out the schedules of professional training he had to take. And of course, there was his sister’s graduation in June. His plans were for naught.

He called his family to inform them of the situation, and his parents supported the company’s decision. For them, it was safer for him to be ‘quarantined’ on a ship rather than to be coming home with multiple risks of getting the virus. He began to understand that this situation was bigger than himself.

Life goes on—but differently

The shipping industry needs to continue despite the pandemic. With 90% of the world trade dependent on maritime transport, there is no time to rest for the noble front liners of the sea. But the challenges for the industry came in fast. Ship procedures had to change.

Jade’s company sent additional proper protective equipment such as face masks and gloves, together with materials for COVID-19 awareness and education. Meetings with port and local authorities are no longer held in the ship’s office but outside, far from the living quarters. Crewmembers can no longer accept families or friends on board the vessel for visitation. Documents sent or received in hard copies are now transmitted digitally. And what was once a ship filled with bliss became one with a growing sense of fear and panic.

The first of May, but not the last of quarantine

May 1 passed yet Jade and his crew were still stuck on board.

There are an estimated 100,000 seafarers repatriated monthly, so a considerable number of contracts were extended as a global response in mitigating the pandemic. This naturally comes with challenges. Seafarers had been looking forward to going home and taking a break; how should their mental health and well-being be safeguarded? Synergy Group, a Singapore-based ship manager, reported a 40% increase in the number of calls to their mental health and wellness helpline back in February. The rise of calls is a clear indication of how contract extensions negatively impacted our seafarers, even at the onset of the pandemic.

Despite knowing the gravity of the situation, Jade was displeased. Fortunately, he and the other crewmembers shared the challenge of uplifting each other’s morale and looking after one another. They looked for ways to distract themselves. After their watches and day jobs, they’d be found at the gym working out, or in the mess hall sharing a laugh or two. The ones who prefer talking to their family members spend most of their time in their cabins. Everyone found their own way to cope.

June is about to end, and Jade is still on board

Three months past the end of his contract, Jade tries his best to adapt to the current situation. And while salaries and provisions are sufficient during COVID-19, Jade and the other seafarers need a break.

When all of this is over, Jade and other sailors will come home. They will be welcomed by their longing families, and the pandemic will be nothing but a thing of the past to learn from. Jade is now heading to his next port onboard a tanker vessel. He will continue to attend to his deck officer’s responsibilities until he is allowed to disembark. He says that their ship is currently free from COVID-19, and they are doing their best to keep it that way.

This pandemic spares no one. As the whole world battles it, let us not forget our brothers and sisters who, just like Jade, are out there on the international waters – continuing the legacy of making 90% of the global economy run. Let us all gather in prayers that our heroes, our front liners of the sea, be safe wherever they are.

Let care and prayers across the seas be our new normal.

Elijah Jose Barrios

Elijah Jose Barrios is a 24-year old Third Officer, Teacher, and Course Developer. He advocates for child literacy and youth empowerment through his involvement in different organizations.  He considers himself an appreciator of any form of art and usually puts all his realizations into writing.