Fearing that the drop in cash remittances from Filipino workers overseas may worsen, the Philippine government is scrambling to prepare grounded seafarers for redeployment, especially through vaccination against the dreaded coronavirus.
Before the pandemic, the remittances of Filipino workers overseas made up more than US$30 billion of the Philippines’ gross domestic product of US$377 billion in 2019, of which, more than US$6.5 billion came from Filipino seafarers.
With the pandemic in full swing in 2020, however, the remittances of overseas workers dropped to US$29.9 billion but the remittances of seafarers remained at around US$6.353 billion. The figures defied the dire predictions of economists, but with more seafarers being furloughed, authorities expect a sharper fall for 2021.
For seafarers, time is of the essence
For retired naval admiral Robert Empedrad, now administrator of the Philippines’ Maritime Industry Authority (Marina), there is no time to lose.
“If we don’t vaccinate our seafarers, ship owners will get vaccinated seafarers from other countries. Our seafarers will lose their jobs. So, we are pushing to vaccinate all our seafarers. Otherwise, it will impact the economy,” Empedrad told Maritime Fairtrade in an interview.
But the global vaccine shortage has had its impact on the Philippine maritime sector as it did the rest of the world.
Empedrad said Marina still has a long way to go in inoculating Filipino seamen because the lack of vaccine doses has limited the agency’s vaccination program to more than 40,000 seafarers to date.
“Some are fully vaccinated while some are waiting for their second doses. But those vaccinated by local government units are not included. We’ve been told that they have vaccinated more or less 100,000 seafarers. So, we still have a long way to go because we have 900,000 seafarers in all,” he added.
Moreover, the Philippines has a population of more than 100 million and the government aims to inoculate at least 70 million to reach the level of herd immunity, so the demand remains strong.
“Hopefully will get more vaccines so that we can continue to vaccinate our seafarers before they get on board,” Empedrad said.
Maritime industry united in effort to help seafarers
Aside from the supply issues, there’s also the need for seafarers to get vaccinated with western vaccine brands as required by some governments.
“Domestic (Philippine) shipowners do not require any brand of vaccines so we give our local seafarers Sinovac. We only have roughly 60,000 domestic seafarers so we also give them western vaccines, depending on the supply,” Empedrad said.
While there are still ship owners who accept unvaccinated crew, Empedrad said the crewmen frequently get their jabs when they are already onboard their vessels.
“In the United States, they vaccinated their crew. I think the Netherlands does that too. They are already vaccinating our seafarers, so that’s good for us,” he added. “The problem arises when ship owners require that seafarers be vaccinated before boarding.”
Despite the challenging situation, the Marina chief said he was gratified by the cooperation he has seen from local governments and stakeholders in the maritime industry.
Various shipping and crewing companies have provided jabs for their seafarers after shipowners required potential crewmen to be vaccinated before they are employed. Local governments have also realized they should help get their residents redeployed to their previous jobs abroad so they have been given priority access to vaccine jabs.
Likewise, various maritime organizations and manning groups have also joined hands in urging the government to prioritize the vaccination of key workers, like seafarers, so they could keep their jobs abroad.
“So, we are happy,” Empedrad said. “I think we are moving forward. And we are thankful for the support of the industry and local governments. We have ongoing vaccinations in various places in the country.”
WHO stepping up to help
The supply situation is also expected to improve soon with the COVAX Facility providing 10 million more doses to the Philippines, the World Health Organization announced earlier this week.
Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe, the WHO representative in the Philippines, said the 10 million doses will be in addition to the 13 million doses that have already been sent by the global initiative.
“We are looking at increasing vaccine allocations to the Philippines,” Abeyasinghe said in a government briefing. “We expect larger consignments to come within this third and fourth quarters.”
Empedrad said they have already requested 80,000 doses for September and 60,000 more in October.
“When they release it, we will pass it on to the local governments, then the LGUs (local government units) will be the ones to inoculate our seafarers,” he explained.
“We will coordinate with the local governments once vaccines are released, since Marina does not have a vaccination center. That’s the process. With the help of the National Vaccination Operation Center, we can give vaccines appropriately to the seafarers,” he added.