The hardships faced by seafarers during the COVID pandemic all over the world have been highlighted in various print and digital media. However, one can sympathise with the stories of fellow seafarers but a first-hand experience is a different ball game. Thus, I thought I would write down my experiences, as I had plenty of time available while completing my quarantine in this nice hotel in Kakinada before I had to leave to join an offshore vessel in the next couple of days.
My travel aka travails started from Brazil with the ultimate destination being Kakinada, a lovely British-type town on the east coast of India. The flight from Brazil to Doha, Qatar, went almost without disruption. Doha Airport is a hub for flights from Asia to Europe and the Americas and vice versa, so its lounge was crowded with waiting passengers. Fortunately, the COVID protocols were being strictly enforced and well monitored by the security staff.
After a wait of six hours, we boarded the flight to New Delhi. It was a Friday and we had pre-booked tickets for the onward journey to Rajahmundry via Hyderabad. We were a group of 13 crew setting off to relieve the onboard crew. We landed late evening at Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi. The immigration procedures were a bit slow because of the additional checks due to COVID but went smoothly. However, we got our first rude shock when we were diverted to the COVID area for 7 days of quarantine instead of the planned exit so that we could continue the next leg of our journey. Despite producing all the relevant papers and documents, including COVID test reports, the authorities were helpless as they were following their SOPs. They directed us to the waiting area from where buses would take us to COVID-approved hotels in the vicinity of the terminal.
As these events were unfolding, our operations director got in touch with our agent Arya Offshore, who was annoyed as the quarantine would disrupt the entire crew change cycle. Notwithstanding, because of the good rapport with the J M Baxi Group, we were quarantined in a very decent hotel for the next 7 days. Mr Rahool from Arya Offshore was in constant touch and ensured that our check-in was smooth.
The next day, Rahool briefed us. During the night, he had contacted the Airports Authority, the COVID cell and the domestic airlines to see what documentation was required to ensure that we could seamlessly move to our destination. I was aghast at the number of documents he asked us to fill in, but then I realised that something like COVID happens only once a century. Though the documents were in line with WHO and administration directives, the on-ground interpretation and implementation seemed to be a weak link in the overall jigsaw puzzle. Rahool spent hours trying to obtain clearances. In his chats with me, he told me about two issues. First, he had to get an approval from the health authorities to permit a private laboratory to undertake COVID tests in the hotel, which was the preferred option due to its convenience and expediency. The second was hilarious. As per the GOI norms, every passenger is required to install the Aarogya Setu app on their smartphone to confirm that they are uninfected. They are required to show the app before they are allowed to enter the airport. However, the crunch was that all of us have international SIM cards but we could register with the app only with a national SIM card. Rahool contacted a telecom service provider, despite the total lockdown in the city, who agreed to provide SIM cards but needed to see each of us in person with our passports. We were not allowed to leave the hotel as we were being quarantined but on the other hand, the vendor was not permitted to enter the hotel. It was truly a catch 22 situation. I am not too sure how finally Rahool managed to convince the Airports Authority, but they helped us to enter the airport without the app installed.
To cut the story short, all of us took COVID tests on the 5th day of quarantine and we were relieved when none of us tested positive. The hotel staff were more than cooperative and helpful, as was our guide Rahool, who had 13 sets of documents ready, one for each of us, early in the morning of the departure day with a request that we report at the airport 3 hours in advance of the departure to go through another set of medical checks by the airline’s doctors. I felt like a NASA astronaut being led to the spacecraft for a lift-off.
The flight to Hyderabad was uneventful and we had to spend another 8 hours in the terminal before boarding the last leg of our air journey to Rajahmundry, all the while maintaining complete physical distancing norms. The last leg was only 50 minutes long. Upon landing, we had to go through security, where all our papers, including the COVID clearance, were rechecked. Our agent’s representative at the airport was well prepared, and most of the district administration’s formalities had been completed by him prior to our arrival. The authorities needed to recheck only our personal documents. An “all clear” message was flashed to Kakinada with our personal and vehicle details. We had to guarantee that all the vehicles moved as a convoy to Kakinada. I never realised we were VIPs! I was told that if the authorities at Kakinada had not been informed properly and things were not done by the book, our vehicles would have been redirected to the COVID centre at Kakinada to start the saga all over again. However, because of the detailed arrangements at Rajahmundry and Kakinada, we were safely accommodated in our hotel for the 7-day quarantine required by the district administration as well as the by client prior to us joining the vessel.
My experience was one of a kind, but I have been told that my fellow seafarers have encountered worse experiences in other parts and ports of the world. Since 70 per cent of world trade moves by sea, we seafarers are a critical link in keeping the global economy moving.