Seafarer access to medical care a matter of life and death

Joint Statement by IMO and ILO highlights need for prompt access for medical assistance for vital key worker seafarers

The Secretary-General of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO) have issued a joint statement calling for port and coastal States to facilitate the prompt disembarkation of seafarers for medical care as a matter of “life or death”; to prioritize seafarers for COVID-19 vaccination; and to designate seafarers as key workers, recognizing seafarers’ valuable contribution to world trade.

In the joint statement (Circular Letter No.4204/Add.42), IMO Secretary-General Kitack Lim and ILO Director-General Guy Rider say seafarers are facing difficulties in accessing medical care and highlight the “moral obligation to ensure seafarers can access medical care ashore without delay, whenever they need it, and to extend medical assistance on board should the need arise by allowing qualified doctors and dentists to visit ships. It is also important that a medical assessment be conducted prior to administering any treatment, which could include telemedicine assessment provided by international health providers.”

“Receiving such care can be a matter of life or death for seafarers who fall ill while working on ships. The international community should do its utmost to support those who have maintained the global supply chain under pandemic conditions over the last 18 months and keep carrying on often despite enormous personal hardships,” say the Director-General of ILO and the Secretary-General of IMO.  

The joint statement notes that “almost 14 months after issuing the ‘Recommendations for port and coastal States on the prompt disembarkation of seafarers for medical care ashore during the COVID-19 pandemic’ (Circular Letter No.4204/Add.23), seafarers are still struggling to access such care when needed. Advocacy from Member States, the maritime industry, social partners and seafarers themselves has once again brought the plight of seafarers to the fore.”

As enshrined in ILO’s 2006 Maritime Labour Convention (MLC 2006), it is incumbent upon Member States to ensure seafarers onboard ships in their territory are given access to medical facilities ashore, should they require immediate medical care, including dental care (See the Resolution concerning the implementation and practical application of the MLC, 2006 during the COVID-19 pandemic, adopted by the Special Tripartite Committee of the MLC, 2006 in April 2021.) The legal obligation to render assistance to seafarers in distress, including medical assistance, is also an intrinsic component of IMO conventions, namely the International Convention for  the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS); the International Convention on MAritme Search and Rescue (SAR); and the Convention on the Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic (FAL).   

The joint statement once again urges Governments to recognize the strategic importance of the maritime sector and, in line with UN General Assembly resolution A/75/17 adopted on 1 December 2020, to designate seafarers as key workers and to treat them as such by providing access to medical care.  Circular Letter No.4204/Add.35/Rev.7 contains the current list of IMO Member States having notified IMO that they have designated seafarers (and other marine personnel, as appropriate) as key workers.

Governments are urged to prioritize seafarers in their national COVID-19 vaccination programmes, in accordance with the WHO SAGE Roadmap for Prioritizing uses of COVID-19 Vaccines in the Context of Limited Supplies, as updated on 16 July 2021, and to offer
WHO-approved Emergency Use Listing (EUL) vaccines to ensure their vaccination status is recognized internationally. The list of WHO-approved EUL vaccines is accessible at https://extranet.who.int/pqweb/vaccines/covid-19-vaccines

The ILO and IMO heads also encourage Governments to recognize the role other marine personnel play in facilitating global trade and, wherever possible, to also vaccinate them on a priority basis.  

Information received by IMO and ILO indicates that 24 countries have thus far answered the clarion call by implementing seafarer vaccination programmes, or signaling their intent to do so, in designated ports within their jurisdictions. A list of these countries and their constituent ports is accessible at https://icma.as/vaccines/

The joint statement says: “We are extremely grateful to these countries but urge more to step forward to accelerate, in particular, the vaccination of seafarers serving international shipping. Government agencies, industry, labour and seafarer welfare groups continue to work assiduously to facilitate and/or deliver vaccines for seafarers. However, much remains to be done. We shall continue to work with our sister UN agencies, Governments and industry bodies to address the ongoing needs of seafarers and to safeguard their basic rights, so that they may continue to facilitate the global economy.”

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