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Tackling the challenges of COVID-19 fatalities onboard ships at sea

The COVID-19 pandemic affected many people worldwide, but it has been particularly severe for seafarers. As the number of variants increased and new infections appeared worldwide, the maritime industry was severely affected. The outbreak of infection in ships did start a little later, but it still left a baneful mark on those onboard. Fatalities surged during the second wave of the pandemic, and deaths onboard were no exception.

In the event of any fatality due to COVID-19 while at sea, the person in authority on the ship or the captain must inform the homeport immediately and follow their instructions.

Some of these steps are listed below:

Filling up the death investigation form: Whenever a death occurs, the ship has to fill in the details about the person, date and time of death, reason of death if it’s known i.e. natural injury, accidental, non-accidental and details of the person filling the form. The post-mortem process is very organic. If the pathologist is not onboard, the body is sent to the next port for medical examination to determine the cause of death.

Preservation: On ships, there is a temporary mortuary where the mortal remains of a deceased can be preserved. The vessel must, however, be carefully sanitized. The body of a deceased needs to be preserved until it reaches the next port of call to be examined for evidence of death.

Safe handling protocols: In terms of body handling protocols, they include avoiding direct contact with the body or bodily fluids of the deceased wearing proper protective gear such as gloves, goggles, masks, face shields, kits, etc. An injury or wound on the body should be dressed appropriately with a waterproof dressing. In addition, anyone taking care of the body should wash their hands with soap before and after they come into contact with the deceased. In addition, they should discard all protective equipment.

Clearing the Mortal remains: Before COVID-19, the procedure for removing a body was reasonably simple, but since the pandemic, it has become more systematic and riskier.

First, the mortal remains of the deceased are wrapped in linen or a disposable bag. Then, it must be zippered well in a sturdy, transparent plastic bag no less than 150cm thick. Then, it is placed in an opaque bag with handles to be carried safely. An identification label is attached in a way that can be seen from the outside. It is then ready for transportation or refrigeration.

The deceased’s body is best stored in the ship’s refrigerator under the constant supervision of an engineer at a temperature of 4 degrees Celsius but not below 2 degrees Celsius. In the absence of ship refrigeration, a catering fridge is used under the cook’s supervision. Until the deceased’s remains reach its destination port, it is vital to protect their identity and preserve their security.

Due to the compact structure of a ship, limited exposure to the outside environment, the impossibility of social distancing, and lack of medical facilities onshore, people are more prone to infections.

It can be challenging to maintain physical distance and put on a mask as the employees on the ship are constantly working. To mitigate the risk of outbreaks, many protocols have to be followed on board. There is a process of managing and containing the body with utmost care since the body cannot be buried or left offshore.

The first major outbreak of infection was reported on Diamond Princess, a British Cruise Ship, while it was still quarantined at Yokohama for approximately one month in February 2020. According to reports, there were almost 700 infected passengers, out of which nine died.

Seafarers found it challenging to deal with the situation due to changes of rules in ports of different countries and prolonged lockdowns, which led to multiple suicides. On top of that, crew changes amid a pandemic with multiple approvals proved to be a nightmare for seafarers.

To lower the risk, all ships in water must follow guidelines set by the International Labour Organization. From testing themselves before boarding the ship to following the COVID-19 protocols onboard and even getting tested again before disembarking on the port.

The life of seafarers has already been challenging enough, but dealing with an outbreak of such a virus can be just as traumatic. Since the vaccine’s introduction, the number of deaths and infections has declined. Living on the water will hopefully become safer and easier in the future.


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