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Helpline cases triple as seafarers seek help during COVID-19 pandemic

© Chan Min Thet

International 24-hour helpline SeafarerHelp, operated by the International Seafarers’ Welfare and Assistance Network (ISWAN), has experienced a surge in demand as the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic affects seafarers worldwide.

In April 2020 alone, ISWAN’s SeafarerHelp handled over 600 new cases – more than triple the number in the same month last year. Many of these cases involve seafarers experiencing issues as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. In fact, up to 1 May 2020, the helpline has recorded over 470 COVID-19-related cases affecting more than 7,000 seafarers.

So far, the most common COVID-19-related problem reported by seafarers to SeafarerHelp is difficulty with repatriation. Crews around the world have been left stranded, unable to disembark from their vessels due to port restrictions or unable to make their home once ashore due to lockdown measures. In cases such as these, SeafarerHelp’s helpline officers work with a network of organisations including ship owners, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), government agencies, welfare bodies, and ISWAN’s own regional teams in the Philippines, India and Nigeria, who are in close contact with their national maritime authorities, to arrange the help the seafarers need.

However, many of SeafarerHelp’s cases are dealt with in-house. The helpline’s officers are trained in counselling skills, emotional support and suicide risk assessment and have been supporting seafarers contacting the helpline with stress and anxiety caused by the COVID-19 crisis. Over 100 cases so far involve seafarers seeking financial assistance, and the SeafarerHelp team has referred those eligible to the ISWAN Hardship Fund and Seafarers Emergency Fund. A similar number of cases were requests for information on topics such as visas, joining ships or port restrictions, and SeafarerHelp provides a first port of call for those unsure where to go.

SeafarerHelp Deputy Team Manager Yasmine Zhao said: ‘Our helplines are coping well during the COVID-19 crisis, despite the fact that we ourselves are under lockdown and everybody is working from home.

‘Due to the spreading of the coronavirus outbreak, we have seen a rapid increase in the number of calls coming into our helplines. The number of calls more than tripled in April 2020 if you compare with the number of contacts we received in the same period last year. To be able to deal with the high volume of calls, we have added extra shifts and extra staff on top of our normal shift pattern. Our team is working extremely hard to assist seafarers and their families worldwide.’

Ekaterina, one of the SeafarerHelp officers working on the helpline, said: ‘Every call is different. Sometimes seafarers are happy to get news and current updates; sometimes they need a lot of emotional support. We ask questions and listen to what a seafarer needs. We are happy to follow the lead of the call and stay in touch with seafarers until they feel better or until their problem is resolved.’

ISWAN’s SeafarerHelp is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and the helpline team speaks a number of different languages. Seafarers and their families can contact the helpline via a range of channels including telephone, e-mail, WhatsApp and Live Chat, and speak confidentially to a trained helpline officer. More information about SeafarerHelp and contact details can be found at www.seafarerhelp.org.