COVID-19: Social Exclusion for Returning Seafarers strains Family Relationships

Press Release

25 March 2019

“Little did I know that the excitement of going home finally after 6.5 months would turn into a nightmare after I landed.”   

“…my uncle [is] scared that if I stand too close to the balcony end I might get stoned…”

“…our silent contribution is not valued that much in society.”

London. UK. Over the last 72 hours, Human Rights at Sea has been deluged with Indian seafarers getting in contact with the charitable NGO outlining the challenges they are facing during the current COVID-19 crisis. This now includes emerging issues relating to unexpected social exclusion when some seafarers return home.

With express permission, the charity discloses one of the cases submitted with the request by the VLGC Captain previously under Anglo-Eastern ship management, to share it publicly to highlight the personal issues he has faced following his sign-off. It will also highlight wider issues around the urgent need for better individual awareness in relation to COVID-19.

The case identifies a number of key points, not just for commercial seafarers, but which are equally applicable for fishers too.

1). Seafarers and fishers must be given accurate facts about the COVID-19 virus, including, but not limited to the symptoms, how it can be transmitted, how it can be contained, periods of self and family isolation. This needs to be a regular process backed by official updates.

2). Seafarers and fishers should be counselled as to the consequences of returning home after sign-off to manage expectations relating to their own, and their dependent’s responses, including understanding their dependent’s fears based on their understanding of the virus and its effects.

3). Education is key for seafarers, fishers and their dependents to ensure that individuals are empowered with correct knowledge and so that re-integration and issues of social exclusion by family members and local communities are minimised, especially where living is within close proximity to neighbours.

The following is the updated text of the letter to Human Rights at Sea.

In His Own Words: Captain Ritesh Mehra

[Starts] “I am Captain Ritesh Mehra, sailing as Master Mariner on VLGC’s (Very Large Gas Carriers) with Anglo Eastern Ship Management. My last contract was on LPG/c Karokine N, IMO No.9386299, a 75,000 cubic fully refrigerated gas carrier. To take you a bit into the mental pressure I have been through, I will start from my contract on the last ship.

Masters contract are generally 4 months on VLGCs, but I had done over 6.5 months on my last ship. I was supposed to sign off from Marcus Hook in [the] USA around 20th Feb 20, but as the vessel berthed a day earlier in US, I could not get off in [the] US and I had to stay until the Discharge Port, that was in Turkey.

In Turkey, we arrived at Dortyol on 9th Mar 20 and my relief boarded, but I was not allowed to sign off as [the] Turkey Sanitary Department [had] stopped all Crew Change. After a lot of pursuing with [the] Health Department in Turkey, I got permission to sign off at next port of call – Aliana, and I finally got off on 16th Mar 20.

As soon as I got off we got news [that] India will stop all International Flights from Turkey on 18th Mar 20.

My flight was initially from Gazipasa Airport, but as that got cancelled due to weather I had to rush from Gazipasa Airport to Antalya Airport (a 3 hr road journey), as there was a flight from there to Istanbul leaving at 1600 hrs the same day. [The] airlines never helped us in this and this was arranged by myself after making agents in Turkey rush and get all [the] permissions in urgency over [the] phone.

The flight from Antalya was absolutely the last flight anyone could take as India was stopping all arrivals from Turkey after that. With Gods Grace I got that flight and one after that, the last flight from Istanbul to India.

On the flight I kept a gas mask on though it gave me a headache later, and I avoided having even water while in flight just to be sure in case there was any virus on [the] plane. [my point was that] I SHOULD NOT TAKE IT BACK WITH ME.

Little did I know that the excitement of going home finally after 6.5 months, would turn into a nightmare after I landed.

Due to this corona virus scare and as it was early morning arrival, I had asked my family not to come to receive me at [the] airport.

Generally my brother, wife and kids are there to welcome me back, but [not] this time. No-one came and I never wanted them to, as I knew I will meet them in few minutes in any case (just for record I haven’t been visited by my brother till date).

As I was in [the] cab my wife was talking to me about [the] Corona scare and in the conversation she also said I have to keep distance from her too for some days as its better to be cautious these days.

This took me by surprise as my own wife was assured in her mind that I was a corona virus carrier now and she could not risk me hugging her on the gate in excitement (I think handshakes & hugs dont immediately transmit [the] virus in any case).

The way this thing was put to me shook me and took me some time to absorb. I WAS A UNTOUCHABLE to my wife now.

Going further, my wife had sent my kids to my mothers house, and though we initially talked that we will call them back after I clean up and we sanitate my luggage, I later realised that the plan was to keep them away from me for two weeks and break it down to me slowly.

As my kids were not that happy in my mothers house, after 2 days I took the call and called my kids back negating all the arguments, and now they are with me in our house but we maintain a safe distance as per incubation period norms.

Next, worse happened to me two days after.

My Apartment people approached me and asked me to leave society for 14 days until it is confirmed I am not carrying any Virus. I asked them to issue me a notice but they cant as this is illegal.

The problem I faced, or am still facing, is that is my family is scared and they feel if I keep taking the stand on basis of “What is Right” and keep objecting to all for being discriminatory towards me, my family will be outcast later once I am not at home.

In any case, in order to not create a fuss I have locked myself down in my apartment after filling up provisions for a month, and though my flat is on 5th floor, I use stairs whenever I have to go down for anything.

Last afternoon I climbed up all 5 floors with about 50KG [of] provisions on my shoulders. As I am a physician strong man this is more of an exercise to me, I don’t mind it much, but yes, I do feel humiliated.

Another shocker to me till date is, though I have loads of so called friends in my Apartment, and in family members as well.

No one has called and asked me my Wellbeing, though I understand the virus doesn’t gets transmitted over phone. I know they all will jump at my house after [a] few days and [a] few already have started calling, but I just keep praying to God to keep this memory alive. Times like this only tells you [the] reality of people around you.

After years of enjoying respect and love of family & friends, today I am locked in my house without any signs of illness from last one week looking at all roaming around free in neighbourhood, while my uncle [is] scared that if I stand too close to the balcony end I might get stoned as well.

I have always believed that in every situation there is a positive. This situation have given me a platform to prepare my kids for future. And for [my]self, I have now enough reasons to love my job a bit more and keep sailing as long as I can.

Though people will talk about you being missed and force you to take up shore job at much lesser salary and struggle your way up all over again, the fact remains [that] you are called back to make lives of others easier, not yours.

Today, I remember the time when I went in to Chiba on the Fritzi N after the Tsinami, and that was one of first few ships that took supplies to Japan. Respect I got from terminal staff there was immense, and that THANK YOU Berth Master said, I could see [that] HE MEANT IT for all hundreds and thousands of people who got helped because of [the] load we delivered.

We help out MASSES [of people] at times without realising what we have done, and our silent contribution is not valued that much in society.

If not in society, if not by others, at least we should valued as much, and hope, one day others will see our importance as well.

With Hope for a brighter future for Seafarers,

Captain Ritesh Mehra”

[Ends]

HRAS COMMENT

Human Rights at Sea acknowledges the unprecedented period of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the emerging human rights and welfare issues for seafarers who keep the global economy flowing and essential goods transported around the world, require to be consistently highlighted to put stakeholders on notice of the wider and often unexpected consequences following a seafarer’s sign-off, often without the availability of accurate formal education and updates as to the facts surrounding COVID-19.

Ends.

 

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