The challenges of the maritime industry
FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - May 22, 2020 - 12:00am

I have previously written about the challenges of OFWs and seafarers during this pandemic. This week, I would like to focus on the challenge of the maritime industry, particularly the cruise lines. To get the ball rolling, a government-industry dialogue was recently held with National Task Force co-chair Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, and related departments/agencies: DFA, DOTR, DOLE, PCG, BOQ, PPA, OWWA. Also present were chief implementer Secretary Carlito Galvez and spokesperson Major General Restituto Padilla, Jr.

The Philippine Maritime Industry involves one million seafaring professionals, with around 400,000 of them at sea at any given time. About 100,000 are employed in the cruise sector, while the rest are deployed on merchant vessels. Altogether, this sector contributes approximately $7 billion to the national economy, representing between 20 to 23 percent of total annual remittances to the country in 2019.

During this crisis, it has been cruise ships that have caught worldwide attention. First, because of the ease of transmissibility of the coronavirus disease 2019 or COVID 19 among passengers and crew, and secondly, because of the reluctance of their home countries to receive returning passengers for fear of further spread of the infection. The issue, however, that is vital to the continuity of the global maritime industry, the Philippine economy, and the health and well being of our country is the repatriation of our returning seafarers. This involves testing, tracking and treating them, and arranging for their last mile journey to their hometowns.

At present, 25 cruise ships are docked in Manila Bay, several of them affiliated with the Carnival Group, one of the largest cruise operators in the world. As of May 16, crews of all ships have already undergone swabbing for PCR testing. One of them, a vessel of the Carnival Group, has however been in Manila Bay since April 26.  Backlogs in analyzing and communicating test results, processing of the influx of OFWs via the airport, and the management of those already in land-based isolation facilities have contributed to a COVID-19 induced industry-wide stasis. Private sector representatives are hoping that the backlog is addressed before the return of the 15,000 to 20,000 seafarers on merchant ships scheduled to arrive within the next two months. While the NTF openly admitted that they were surprised and overwhelmed by the task confronting them, they responded quickly to the task.

Despite my personal concerns that Sec. Lorenzana wanted to involve too many people – too many cooks spoil the broth – I was proven wrong. At the end of the day, it was important that all key players were present so that everybody is on the same page. Mrs. Toni Yulo-Loyzaga, president of the National Resilience Council, moderated the dialogue. She was a masterful moderator and I quote verbatim her incisive summary.

There are several additional factors to consider in designing an end-to-end solution to this situation. First, is that there are a number foreign nationals among the officers and crew. They need to be processed separately and placed on flights back to their final destinations. Secondly, there is a need to segregate crew members who have tested negative to prevent further transmission. Both factors would require ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore transfers. These, in turn, are dependent on the third factor: the vital need for closer cooperation between government and manning agencies in facilitating the testing and clearing process. 

This cooperation must also include investment in test kits, whether for PCR or rapid antibody testing, and in the establishing of DoH-accredited laboratory facilities. Several manning agencies are already embedding these investments into their core business value cycle, but greater government-industry coordination is essential to matching capacity with demand. Moreover, protocols are needed to ensure the transition of seafarers from the national clearing process to their hometowns. Building trust and understanding between national government, manning agencies and local government units go hand-in-hand with this. One final consideration is that Metro Manila is the single point of entry and processing for all returning workers. This funneling has strained data processing capacities, human resources, transportation and accommodation in the areas surrounding Manila Bay and the Manila International Airport.

Sec. Lorenzana has shown exemplary crisis leadership by establishing a whole-of-government approach in resolving this crisis, with some early results following the dialogue:    

1) He tasked Philippines Coast Guard Adm. Joel Garcia to serve as the main point of contact for the industry and immediately called a meeting of the Sub-Task Group for Repatriation on May 16 to break down the problems into critical moving parts. Fundamental to this approach is the designation of the attendees into a committee and a task force, and, the NTF’s adoption of skillful crisis communication both inter-agency, and between government and different industry stakeholders.

2) Ship-to-ship transfers have already been approved in principle. This will also effectively free up vessels in Manila Bay to enable their departure.

3) Lab facilities are being identified to relieve the Philippine National Red Cross (PNRC) of some of its backlog. PNRC established testing and laboratory facilities to augment government efforts. A target timeframe for the processing and return of test results has also been set.

4) Data collection, management and infrastructure challenges at different points of the process flow are also being addressed. This will allow the following: A) Bureau of Quarantine and PCG to clear the seafarers who have tested negative and facilitate treatment for those who test positive.  B) Department of Foreign Affairs to work with the Bureau of Immigration to provide a “cleared corridor” for transfer of non-Filipino crew from ship to airport given proper notice. And, C) BCDA and DFA to work with LGUs to open up more airports and seaports as potential ports of entry and processing of incoming overseas workers.

I understand the task force will meet again today to monitor the progress on these agreements, but there is also much to be done for the medium and long-term for the Philippine maritime industry and all its professionals to be recognized for their substantial contributions to this country and to the global economy.  Among these is its designation as an “essential industry” in international agreements and the establishing of “green lanes” that will facilitate their movement of seafarers through international ports of entry.

While the global economy continues to be ravaged by the impacts of COVID-19, the joint efforts of the National Task Force, multinational companies and their local partners will also need to keep both the urgent health needs and the long-term resilience of the skilled Filipino maritime professional top of mind.

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