As the deadly pneumonia-like virus known as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) continues to spread through
Asia, government officials are taking drastic steps to keep the illness out of their countries and isolate the
afflicted to halt more infections. The World Health Organization (WHO) issued a travel advisory, telling travelers
to avoid going to Hong Kong because of the number of cases, which have claimed lives in the territory. SARS has
been blamed for about a 100 deaths worldwide, with more than 3,000 people infected.
The infected were currently quarantined in hospitals. There is a freeze on taking in foreign workers from
seriously affected countries, namely Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Vietnam. People were also urged to defer
travel to those countries.
Health authorities have established a control room at the international airports to provide emergency medical
treatment for arriving and departing passengers suspected of carrying SARS. All foreign and domestic airlines
operating were instructed to inform the control rooms if any passenger on board showed symptoms of the virus,
including breathing problems, high fever and severe headaches. Screening air and sea passengers for signs of
SARS, most health officials around the world warned that infrastructure was not equipped to deal with the sars
Countries are facing high risk of SARS spreading from other countries in the region through international tourism,
trade operations and exchanges. Some of the measures taken to prevent SARS from spreading were: Instruct the
people's committees of high-risk provinces and cities to immediately set up local steering committees to promote
inter-branch coordination for prevention of the disease. Priority in preparing medicines, chemicals, equipment
and funding to sweep out immediately any epidemic.
To instruct state management agencies at border gates, customs, police, and quarantine agencies to closely
cooperate with the Health authorities in quarantine work at land, sea, and airport gates.
India, a leading player in intra-Asian trade, is also at the receiving end. Apart from the bilateral trade
between India and far-eastern countries, around 40% of India's trade with the US west coast and the bulk of
its trade with Australia pass through Singapore and Hong Kong, two hub ports that have been badly hit by the
fast-proliferating virus. SARS, which is believed to have spread from southern China to Hong Kong and then to
Singapore, has triggered a wave of panic among Indian shippers as well.
Though the impact so far is limited to operational aspects of shipping, many fear it would soon spill over to
trading between countries, if the virus is not contained soon.
Singapore, for instance, has insisted that ship masters, owners or agents submit a complete health-check
form at least 12 hours before the vessel's arrival in Singapore, failure to comply may invite a fine of
$2,900 and possible imprisonment for six months. Indian ports have also tightened health checks.
There are restrictions on movement of foreign crew, especially those coming from far eastern countries.
Indian crew traveling abroad have been advised against taking shore leave in countries declared as SARS-infected,
and to limit their contact with shore-side personnel to the minimum.
In most ports, no foreign vessels are allowed to berth at the various terminals until health officials declare
the vessels and crew completely virus-free, in the Philipines vessels arriving from SARS-affected ports of China,
Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam are allowed only up to Manila's basin area.
Cruise shipping, just recovering from the Iraq war impact, has predictably been hit badly. After a couple of
crewmembers were suspected to have been infected with SARS, Star Cruises were forced to cancel two cruises,
and withdraw the SuperStar Virgo, hugely popular among Indian cruisers.
With travel to Hong Kong and Singapore having reduced dramatically in recent weeks, there are serious concerns
that these countries may dip into recession this year if the SARS epidemic persists for six months.
A Mumbai freight forwarder said, this could also develop into a blessing-in-disguise for India, since many
industries like textiles and garments may land more orders. Many trade visitors, otherwise far-east bound, are
now exploring the Indian market as an alternate sourcing point at least till the virus is contained, he said.
The outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) has increased the attractiveness of Indian seafarers.
Most international ship-management companies that recruit crew on a regular basis have put a freeze on hiring
from China, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong, turning to the Indian market for immediate placements.
Ship-management companies like Eurasia, Anglo-Eastern, Wallem and Barbers figure among the major industry
players that have either frozen recruitment from China and other South-East Asian markets, or are going slow.
Some companies have asked their existing Chinese crew not to go on leave till SARS is brought under control.
China, which is a major source of officers and ratings, has emerged as a major threat to India traditionally a
big supplier of quality seamen. Chinese seafarers are willing to work on lower salaries compared to Indians
and Filipinos. But SARS has suddenly put them behind the competition. We have put a complete freeze on
recruitment from China. We have also proposed to recruit Indian seafarers for immediate requirement on
two Hong Kong-flagged vessels. If not for SARS, these openings would have gone to Chinese crew, said Vijay
Rangroo, managing director of Eurasia Maritime (India).
A senior official from international ship management major, Anglo Eastern, said his company employs
about 4,000 crewmembers globally, all of whom are currently banned from taking shore leave when their
ships call at any of the high-risk countries. A majority of the crew is Indian and Filipino, and the
company also employs some Chinese. For us, India has remained a major market, said the official.
Another industry official said recruitment from China has come down drastically over the last two months.
Nobody wants to jeopardise ship movements and charters. Any suspected case of SARS would make life miserable
for the entire crew, since everyone will have to be quarantined. Mr. Easow Thomas, general manager of Bergesen
India, said the current shift in recruitment patterns is only a temporary phenomenon. Chinese crew is available
at half the salary compared to other nationalities. For instance, a Chinese master's monthly salary is around
$2,500 as against an Indian master's salary of $4,500, says Thomas.
SARS has made life miserable for thousands of seamen worldwide as shore-side managers implemented various
SARS-related restrictions. In some cases, ship management companies have extended crew contracts on some vessels
until SARS is brought under control.
Most international ship management majors such as Anglo-Eastern, Eurasia, Univan, Wallem, Barbers and Fleet
Management had established their bases in India long ago, and have been recruiting seafarers. India has always
been preferred for its quality officers and ratings, who are in demand for special jobs in chemical or LNG tankers
While the Philippines continue to be the market leader, China recently overtook India in terms of availability
of officers and ratings. Over the years, China has produced around 34,000 officers and 48,000 ratings against
India's 12,000 and 43,000 respectively. The Philippines leads the pack with over 50,000 officers and 180,000 ratings.