Malaysian Maritime Pilots are in the Frontline, should be Given Priority Vaccination

Protect the essential and frontline workforce.

Maritime pilots, even in the best of times, are working in challenging situations.  During the current pandemic, they are working in the frontline and facing a high risk of infection from COVID-19, therefore posing a danger to their physical health and mental wellbeing.  The authority must expedite vaccination for them.

During the current COVID-19 pandemic that is ravaging the word and leaving millions of deaths and immense financial damage in its wake, there are two particular issues that worry Captain Martin Lim, president and chairman of Maritime Pilots Malaysia (MPM), the national association representing pilots serving at Malaysian ports. 

From all aspects and especially from a safety viewpoint, maritime pilots are possibly the most important and essential members in the maritime industry as they facilitate the safe, efficient and highly precision movement of large ship in congested, confined and environmentally sensitive waterways at ports both big and small.  

However, member pilots of the association have yet to be administered the Covid-19 vaccines.  Captain Martin is concerned that despite urging the government some months back to place maritime pilots on the priority list for the vaccination and submitting a list of member names to the country’s Covid-19 immunization task force, the association has yet to receive any form of confirmation from the authorities. 

High risk of infection in the line of duty

“Maritime pilots risk infection when doing their duties. They board foreign ships even before they are inspected by port health officials. By right, due to the pandemic, ships should be quarantined outside the perimeter of the harbor,” Captain Martin told Maritime Fairtrade in an interview. 

Pilots have to embark all ships, including those coming from ports in India where the deadly Delta variant first emerged, as well as ports identified as having a serious Covid-19 outbreak, at offshore pilot stations. Only at the port will the ships and crew from these high-risk countries such as India be quarantined and tested.

Captain Martin is worried about the severe health safety risks and emotional distress facing maritime pilots. According to the association, recently, three pilots – two from Port Klang and one from the Johor port – were tested positive for Covid-19, and 12 others were quarantined for 14 days due to close contact with persons under investigation for Covid-19.

When pilots embark ships arriving from high-risk ports with severe Covid-19 outbreaks, they will don full personal protective equipment (PPE), but he stressed that these do not guarantee the safety of pilots. Ordinarily, pilots always wear face mask and medical gloves.

MPM member Captain Mohamad Zulfikar bin John (in blue PPE) onboard a vessel.

The danger of fatigue

Captain Martin’s other concern is fatigue. Although climbing the pilot’s ladder to embark a ship before guiding it to the port is routine procedure, the bulky and cumbersome PPE makes this risky task even more challenging.

“After climbing the pilot’s ladder, we have to climb up nine levels to access the deck. I worry that with the PPE, which restricts breathing, our pilots may suffer a cardiac arrest and, if he collapses, no one can come to his aid because of the Covid-19 situation.”

He said the MPM is working with the terminal operators to limit the number of ships pilots take per day. Pilotage services are provided 24 hours a day by the terminal operator. Pilots work in 12-hour shifts comprising two day shifts and two night shifts with a rest day in between. Each work day may see a pilot navigating up to three or four ships into or out of ports.

EDIT: On June 23, it was reported that the vaccination program for Malaysian seafarers and port workers specifically in the Klang Valley will begin on June 25.

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