Will Filipino seafarers miss the Covid-vaccine boat?

By : Joost Mes Director at Avior Marine Inc. & President at Dutch Chamber of Commerce in the Philippines

With the arrival of the Covid vaccine it is just a matter of time before the world will be divided into the "have's" and the "have not yet's". Some countries have started vaccinating while many others, like the Philippines, are scrambling to mob up whatever they can get their hands on. Manning about a quarter of the world fleet there is much at stake in getting Filipino seafarers vaccinated as soon as possible. Both for the Philippines as well as the global shipping community.

The Philippines endured the longest lockdown globally and paid a heavy price economically with a 16.5% drop in GDP in the second quarter, the biggest drop in the SE-Asia region according to the IMF. The crewing sector also suffered with the self imposed travel restrictions in the Philippines making it difficult to send or relieve crew and many were replaced by crew from countries with better flight connections and fewer restrictions. But this loss is pale in comparison with the demise of the cruise sector where thousands of crewmembers got shipped back to their home countries without immediate prospect of returning to their job anytime soon. Now with the arrival of the Covid-vaccine on the scene there seems to be a renewed hope over the horizon but how fast will we get there and how would that new world look like? A recent article of Helen Kelly in the Nautilus Telegraph gives a glimpse of the issues ahead. "

... with the start of the vaccinations questions arise over availability and who should be prioritised for the jab, and whether governments and private industry might mandate immunisation for access to benefits and services, and ultimately require vaccination for travel and employment purposes" - Helen Kelly / Nautilus The article sums up the issues some of which some are already visible. Airlines might demand vaccinations for travel. Last November Qantas announced it will require vaccinations on all its international flights once available. Frank Del Rio, president and CEO, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings, advocating crew vaccination and has said his company was looking into whether it has the legal standing to mandate vaccination for guests.


Vaccinations might become a pre-requisite for entry to countries and visa applications. Apparently Schengen countries are considering this option. But also P&I insurers, charterers and ship owners might make vaccination a requirement for their crew. We may be jumping high or low about the legalities or fairness of such a demand but the bottomline is that we are heading for a 'jab for job' situation. And as seamen and aircrew know, the requirement of having certain vaccinations while traveling the world is nothing new so there is a precedent already. So as far as the 'jab for a job' reality is concerned the question is not if it will happen, but rather how soon this will become a reality.

That probably depends on how ready countries are and how fast they receive the vaccine. For countries like the Philippines and Indonesia the outlook is sobering. According to the The Economist Intelligence Unit more than 85 low income countries will not have widespread access to the vaccine until late 2022 or 2023 and most of those countries are not expected to reach widespread vaccination coverage (60-70%) vaccination before 2023. In contrast to the Philippines and Indonesia, seafarer supplying countries like Eastern Europe, Russia, India and China have the advantage of a locally produced vaccine and are in much better position to move ahead.

So why is the Philippines so late on the vaccine scene? First of all the Philippines is among quite a few countries that did not have the resources or political will to commit and pre-order not knowing the efficacy and timing of potential vaccines. Second the Philippines seems to have placed their bets on the Chinese vaccines Sinovac and Sinopharma. Now that those vaccines are not forthcoming in the way as expected and priced relatively high the country finds itself left behind. It is not that the chances were not there to start with but there seemed to be no sense of urgency. Foreign Sec Locsin blamed 'somebody dropping the ball' on a deal with Pfizer early in the process. But it is always easy to judge in hindsight and with the appointment of Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr as the 'Vaccine Czar' the Administration is trying to make up some of the ground lost. Sec Galvez is the 'Chief Implementer' of the Inter Agency Task Force and as the name implies, he is seen as a straight shooter and someone who gets things done. But he faces an uphill battle.

Vaccine Czar' Sec Galvez : “80% of the global market has been taken by the rich countries. Now we are fighting for the 18% because COVAX has gotten the other (2) percent,”


- ' Despite the late start, the national government is expected to have secured 145 million vaccine doses by the end of January. This is close to the target of procuring a total of 148 million doses, enough to vaccinate up to 70 million Filipinos this year, according to Galvez. That would be an impressive amount of terrain being made up but late arrivers on the scene generally pay a price in terms of timing of the delivery. The first 50,000 doses doses of the 40 Million doses secured from the COVAX facility might arrive as early as Feb-20 according to WHO representative to the Philippines Dr Rabindra Abeyasinghe, but the rest will probably be arriving over 2021, 2022 and into 2023. A slow start but a start nevertheless.

Another early arrival in February will be fifty thousand doses out of the 25M doses Sinovac secured according to Presidential Spokesman Roque. But there is an issue. Sinovac has managed to put in an application for Emergency Use Authorisation (EUA) but has run into a delay as according to FDA director general Domingo 'the Chinese firm’s documents were incomplete. Sinovac only included Phase I and Phase II clinical trial data and have not published any Phase-III clinical data for peer review. So far only Pfizer has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in the Philippines, with Astra Zeneca having received EUA (17M doses) but now waiting to receive full marketing authority. Also the Russian Gamelaya has applied for emergency use authorization.



So where do we stand vaccine wise? With news outlets reporting secured doses almost every day it is difficult to get a good overview but fair, let's give the government purchasers time to do their work and hopefully Sec Galvez will update us once the 145 Million doses have been confirmed secured and more importantly the timeline on when we can expect delivery of the batches. From what has been reported so far, expect a slow start in March and a gradual pick up of deliveries in the third quarter of this year. It will probably become a prolonged campaign well into 2022 and even into 2023. For this reason the Administration has decided to prioritize certain groups. As things stand now the groups most vulnerable or at risk like healthcare workers, senior citizens, uniformed personnel and the poor, total about twenty five million citizens will be first in line. After that this group the Philippines prioritizes teachers, government personnel, key workers in local segments, other vulnerable people and OFW (usually seafarers are in this group). In this initial grouping seafarers only find the rest of the (non-essential) workforce and students behind them.

I think not many will argue the prioritization of healthcare workers and those most at risk but it is disappointing to see no recognition is given to the fact that seafarers who are stuck out at sea often isolated and well beyond their contract term, keeping the supply chain going and our shops full, find themselves so low on the list in the Philippines. A country that calls seafarers the 'unsung heroes of the nation' and is signatory to numerous resolutions and declarations considering seafarers as 'key-workers' seems to completely ignore seafarers when it comes to.
To have at least a chance at access to vaccines some local Crew Management Companies have joined the 'Dose of Hope' , an initiative of Go Negosyo founder and Presidential advisor Joey Conception. As Dutch Chamber of Commerce we have also facilitated several of our members to subscribe to 40,000 doses of Astra Zeneca in the second wave of 3 Million doses expected to arrive sometime in the third quarter of this year. Under a tri-partite agreement between Astra Zeneca, the government and the donors, the donor procure from AZ doses that will then be donated and delivered in full to the government. For 50% of the donated doses the donor can put forward own employees for vaccination provided, those employees will satisfy the government's priority classification at the time. Donors from the maritime sector of course hoping to put forward their seafarers by that time. There was news of a possible third wave with Novavax but this seems to be postponed. Whatever the case, initiatives like this are a win-win for both the government and the private sector, working together to get this done. Credit to Joey Conception and his team for pulling this off.
Meantime on the international front the Global Maritime Forum launched the 'Neptune Declaration on Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change' which, was subscribed by three hundred stakeholders in the maritime logistics chain and is being signed by many more daily as we speak. The first action point is 'Recognizing seafarers as key workers and give them priority access to Covid-19 vaccines'. The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) and Secretary-General Kitack Lim of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) have made similar calls. Locally MARINA was the first to appeal to the IATF for prioritization of seafarers with Marina Administrator Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad quoted as saying 'they will make sure that Filipino seafarers will be one of the first to be administered with the vaccine, since they are considered “key workers” in the frontline'. And most recently the Maritime Committee representing Maritime Members of the Dutch, German and Scandinavian Chambers of Commerce have send a letter to the IATF requesting the same. The Maritime Committee represents the interests of a substantial number of North European shipowners and operators employing close to 80,000 Filipino Seafarers. In a recent television interview with ANC, the Committee's Chairman Tore Henriksen noted that 'the seafarers were 9th or 10th in the list in the Philippines and that he hoped that the AITF would see it fit to revise that'.
The Philippines stands to loose a lot. Ships have to keep moving to carry those essential goods around and they are not going to wait until the Philippines is ready. With a 'jab for a job' reality dawning on the industry owners might have no choice to look elsewhere for crew. Other maritime labour supplying countries like India, Eastern Europe, Russia and China are in a better starting position with earlier access and access to locally produced vaccines. Even Indonesia might be earlier by focusing on the working population first. So keeping Filipino seafarers at the back of the line will have consequences. Both for the families supported by those seafarers, for the economy as well as for the Philippines standing in the maritime world. With a vaccine within reach, the maritime world is moving fast now. To mention some of last weeks headlines, Singapore has just started to vaccinate 10,000 maritime workers and hopes to finish this in the coming week. Bermuda will give priority to vaccinate crew on board one of the ships supplying the island.

Luckily the Covid-vaccine ship in the Philippines has not left yet but the clock is ticking .... let's make sure we are on it Philippines.




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