Interview: Dealing with Ebola
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has already had a significant impact on the shipping industry. West African export trade is estimated to be down by as much as 30% since the start of the outbreak, according to data provided by UK’s shipping consultant Drewry.
Various measures have been undertaken to deal with the outbreak by governmental bodies and relevant stakeholders across the industry, including introduction of ship and crew screening, Ebola-specific clauses in charter parties and even imposing bans on ships arriving to countries from Ebola-affected areas.
World Maritime News spoke with representatives from GAC Group, a global provider of integrated shipping, logistics and marine services, to find out more about the ongoing activities of the GAC arms based in Africa.
WMN: Could you provide us with an update on your current activities with regard to Ebola prevention?
Robert Bal, Managing Director of GAC Nigeria: “Providing timely and comprehensive access to the latest factual information regarding Ebola is central to GAC’s efforts to preventing the further spread of the virus and ensuring the safety of our staff, partners and customers. GAC Nigeria, for example, continues to inform and update our staff and visitors about the importance of recognising Ebola symptoms, how it can be transferred and the preventative actions that need to be taken to avoid being infected. Our approach has always been to keep discussions open and honest and to counter any misunderstandings there are about the virus.”
Michael Sturesson, General Manager of GAC Angola: “GAC Angola conducts training and awareness classes for all our staff. This includes advice on signs of infection and measures of protection. We also conduct demonstrations of the GAC Angola Ebola Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kit. The kits include full-body protective suits, which are the same as those worn by health workers. Additional advice from World Health Organization, International SOS and Local Authorities is also made available to all our staff, partners and clients and continuously updated.”
What kind of requests/services do you provide to your clients/partners in Ebola-related matters?
Bal: “We keep our clients informed of the latest relevant updates on Ebola directly and in the form of alerts using our ‘Hot Port News’ daily news distribution platform. We also offer quarantine support. Maintaining an open line of communication with our customers and partners in this regard is extremely important, as we work to ensure that they can operate safely.”
What kind of staff and crew education to reduce the risk of exposure to Ebola have you introduced? What have been your experiences so far?
Bal: “Information, education and provision of basic necessities such as hand sanitisers play an important role in preventing the spread of the Ebola virus. In addition to our own internal communications, the Nigerian Government actively shares information about Ebola.
We provide our staff and crew with the information and tools that they need to react appropriately to ensure their own safety and the safety of those around them, whilst also enabling them to conduct their duties in a safe manner.”
WMN: Is the industry well prepared to cope with the challenges/dangers this disease poses in terms of training, knowledge?
Sturesson: “With ongoing efforts to increase the knowledge and availability of information to staff and customers the industry can position itself to cope with the challenges. Given the reach of the shipping and logistics industries globally, it is important that we all play our part in trying to control the further spread of the virus and provide support to those affected.”
Bal: “We can all apply the introduced precautions and initiatives of others in the industry to help contain the spread of the virus, and for any organisations operating in the affected areas that have not already invested in additional training and prevention support, I would urge them to do so. Increasing our vigilance for the health and safety of staff and visitors by adopting the various measures as part of our HSSE culture will help prepare the industry to counter the effects of this ravaging disease.”
WMN: What has been the feedback from the industry in responding to the outbreak?
Bal: “The initial response to the outbreak was met with high concern and this was due to the relatively limited knowledge about Ebola. The pro-active and efficient actions by the Nigerian Federal, State and local governments as well as the medical services has helped counter much of the fear that was first associated with the virus. There is now a much better understanding across society, and worldwide, of how the virus spreads, symptoms and recommended precautionary behaviours.”
WMN: Are your concerned that your staff may get infected in the affected areas?
Bal: “As a Group of companies, the welfare of our staff and customers is our number one priority. Should a situation arise that we consider to be a risk to those who work for or with GAC, we will implement protective measures such as travel restrictions and take all necessary actions to ensure that all personnel are safeguarded. At present, there is no need to apply additional measures beyond those that we already have in place such as relevant training, information sharing and ensuring safe, hygienic working conditions. However, we are ready to respond if necessary.”
Stuersson: “Angola isn’t an affected area but precautionary measures are in place and have become routine in the way in which we conduct our day-to-day operations. Of course, we also ensure that our staff, partners and customers are not exposed to unnecessary risk, and as such maintaining vigilance and continuing open communications is key. For example, GAC Angola requires Masters to give a pre-alert if any crew member has a high fever or is experiencing any symptoms that could be associated with Ebola. We also encourage all associates to follow international guidance issued by bodies like the WHO, IMO and IATA in the conduct of their own operations.”
What are the precautionary measures that ship-owners and crews aboard ships travelling to Ebola-affected countries can take in order to mitigate the risk of exposure to the disease?
Bal: “It is essential that crews aboard ships travelling to Ebola-affected countries are provided with, and understand, the necessary materials and information available explaining the symptoms of Ebola and how to prevent being infected with the virus. For example, Ebola can only be transferred by direct contact with the blood or bodily fluids of someone who is already infected with the virus. Knowing the symptoms of Ebola assists in raising awareness.
While Nigeria has been declared Ebola-free, port authorities in Nigeria have restricted the movement of personnel who are not directly involved with the crude export operations into all terminals. Those allowed entry into the terminals are first screened for Ebola symptoms. Sanitizers are placed at all entry/exit points at the terminals and shore offices. It is compulsory that fully-equipped and protected quarantine officers board all export vessels prior to other shore personnel being checked for symptoms and boarding the vessel themselves. Arriving vessels are expected to submit their port call lists, which are scrutinised by the terminal’s health authorities prior to accepting the vessel.”
Sturesson: “Ship-owners need to remain informed of the guidance and precautionary measures being put in place to protect crew from Ebola. Educate crew on what to do and what not to do, and maintain vigilance. This will mean actively pursuing updates on the latest situation and working with partners and service providers to remain up-to-date of any developments.”
WMN: Would you say that introduction of higher rates by ship-owners for vessels going to Ebola-affected areas is justified?
Sturesson: “Yes. There is an increased risk of exposure to the crew, additional training must be provided and suitable PPE will be required, all of which must be accounted for to ensure that crew are adequately protected.”
WMN: What is your position on incorporating Ebola-specific clauses in charter parties?
Sturesson: “A ship-owner should be able to protect its crew as a priority and avoid a port call in an affected area if they deem it to be the right and responsible thing to do.”
Speaking on the whether denying entrance and screening of ships introduced as prevention measure by some countries is a justified move, Bal said that the decision by respective countries is being taken based on their own guidelines and interpretation of the information available.
Sturesson agreed that denying entrance could be justified if a vessel arrives from an affected area.
WMN: What is the worst case scenario for the shipping industry at the moment? What are major concerns?
Bal: “The effect of the Ebola outbreak in a number of West African countries has been catastrophic and the continued spread of the virus should remain a concern for everyone. We have seen great success in the approach taken by the Nigerian Government in controlling the virus, and the informed way in which they have implemented precautionary measures has proven that the virus can be contained. The shipping industry has a very important role to play in remaining vigilant and doing all that it can to control the further spread of the virus.”
Sturesson: “An increase in the spread of the Ebola virus is an on-going concern and it is essential that the response and precautionary measures in place are appropriate. There has been talk of some governments denying vessels entry into port, but given the importance of shipping in sustaining the trade of goods, such measures would be concerning and detrimental to any affected country’s ability to control the virus.”
WMN: Based on your experiences, which ports/industries have been affected the most?
Bal: “Based on the various news sources Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia are most affected. There are also economic consequences and the flow on materials and goods, not to mention livelihoods that have also been affected by this outbreak.”
WMN: What is it that other countries can learn from Nigeria’s battle to contain the virus?
Bal: “Act quick, take bold actions and give daily updates. Nigeria’s government and authorities were swift to act and we have seen that providing access to information and making a concerted effort to ensure that people understand the virus, its symptoms and how to prevent it have been key.”
WMN: How do you see the disease affecting the industry in the long run?
Sturesson: “The Ebola virus is and will likely continue to affect the shipping and wider industries in West Africa. It is vital that all players across the shipping industry, as well as their partners and customers work together to contain and prevent the further spread of the virus, and to put measures in place to ensure that businesses can continue to operate safely.
It is important that we learn from the experiences of others and prepare ourselves for the possibility that this outbreak has the potential to become a global issue. Sharing information, knowledge and raising worldwide awareness in preventing the spread of such viruses will have a long-term positive impact on industries across the board as the industry will be prepared and informed.”
World Maritime News Staff; Images: GAC, WHO