The Seafarers' International Union of Canada says it's nearly impossible for crew members aboard cargo ships to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, as an outbreak aboard a massive cargo ship anchored off eastern Newfoundland shows the toll the pandemic is taking on workers.
Union president Jim Given told CBC News that his members — who range from engineers, chief cooks, able bodied seamen and ordinary seamen — fly through several airports to spend three months aboard shipping vessels where they have no shore leave.
Given said the industry is responsible for moving 90 per cent of goods and raw materials across the country, and adds about $40 billion to the economy annually.
"Unfortunately our industry is a ghost industry. There's not too many people know about it because we run along smoothly and things go well," Given told CBC News Monday in an interview from his home in St. Catharines, Ont.
"We've been ignored for the vaccine. We've been fighting hard to try and get it for our crew members. We have five United Nations organizations that say seafarers have to be prioritized."
Access to vaccines in the industry has been given new urgency because of the case of the bulk carrier MV Federal Montreal, which ground to a halt this weekend after facing an outbreak of COVID-19, which has infected 13 of its 19 members as of Monday. The ship is now anchored in Newfoundland's Conception Bay, just west of St. John's.
The crew on the ship is Indian, Given said.
Fednav, the ship's owner, declined an interview request, but said it is working with authorities.
"Our priority and efforts remain the health and safety of our people and the population," the company said in a brief statement to CBC News.
One crew member is in hospital due to the virus while the rest of the crew remain on board. The entire crew has now been tested, according to a Department of Health statement on Monday. Officials say there is no risk of community spread.
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) told CBC News in a statement it is working closely with the provincial government, and the crew are following public health orders.
"The ship will remain at anchor in Conception Bay while PHAC works with provincial health authorities and marine sector partners to assess the situation in the context of local public health requirements and the requirements of the Quarantine Act to determine next steps," the statement said.
In April, 18 of 25 crew members aboard the Atlantic Huron tested positive for COVID-19. The vessel anchored in Thunder Bay, Ont., and the entire crew, including some from Newfoundland and Labrador, were removed to quarantine at a hotel. Three crew members were hospitalized due to the virus.
Given said a completely different crew had to fly in to get the cargo ship moving again. "We hear politicians talking about 'we have to keep the logistics chain moving,'" he said.
"Seafarers are the first step in that logistics chain, and if we can't do something with the governments in Canada and around the world to keep seafarers healthy, I think people are going to see a real break in that logistics chain and not be able to get the things they need every day."
Mental health and fatigue
Given said a study out of Memorial University looked into the mental fatigue of seafarers and the effects of the pandemic. Crew members are pre-tested before going on board a vessel, then wear a mask while on board the ship for at least 14 days and try to physically distance, where possible. Given said distancing is difficult in close environments.
He said fatigue and mental health have become real issues among his members.
"Without being able to take that step on shore to clear your mind is a real concern, and we're seeing it reflected in some of our seafarers now who are either afraid to go to work, afraid to stay at work," he said. "We're dealing with trying to get enough people to fill the jobs in the industry because of that."
To date, Given said, a little over 50 crew members among the Canadian fleet of cargo ships have been infected with COVID-19. Two members have died as a result.
He said it's hard to get the federal government to understand the logistics of vaccinating crew members, since the ships don't stop, are in a new port every day, and have crew members on board from all corners of the country.
"It's illegal to stop a ship and have no crew on it and send everybody for vaccinations. Even if you could send a few of them, then you break the bubble where you have people going ashore and coming back," he said.
"What we're working on, and what we've asked the governments to do, is to give us the vaccination, allot us a certain amount, we'll hire the nurses, we'll send them on board to vaccinate our seafarers."
Given said Newfoundland and Labrador is the first province that has included seafarers in its plans to vaccinate rotational workers. His union represents about 1,500 seafarers from the province.