At any one moment, there are approximately 50,000 container ships at sea, all moving cargo all around the world, each manned by crews of 20-30 people. That’s a lot of seamen. All of whom are hard at work all across this planet’s seven seas, making sure cargo gets where it needs to go. Almost every nation on Earth depends on these mariners and the cargo they freight.

However, in the old days (like six months ago), the crews were rotated out every few months. That way the mariners had some time to spend with friends, loved ones or all by their damn selves — a reprieve, to enjoy the spoils of their hard work, to relax and refresh before their next months-long shift-at-sea began.

Now, that system has been upended. Since COVID-19 swept the planet, most national borders have closed, flights have been cancelled wholesale and governments are not welcoming these mariners off their ships — though they all still need the cargo they carry.

Effectively that’s stranded over 300,000 mariners in an endless cargo transportation loop, Groundhog Day at sea, delivering one container load after the next without ever being allowed to disembark or otherwise escape their floating home/office/prison.

And even though the services they provide are functionally essential on a global scale, these seafarers still aren’t technically considered “essential workers.”

It’s a situation. Coronavirus still has a chokehold on much of the world, borders remain closed and flights are rare, making it next to impossible for shipping companies to bring in replacement crews. Instead they’ve just been extending the contracts of those already onboard — over and over again. 

Things have gotten so dire in recent weeks, that on Friday September 25th, Captain Hedi Marzougui, went before the U.N.’s general assembly to plead the cargo case to shipping executives and government officials.

“Not knowing when or if we would be returning home put severe mental strain on my crew and myself,” said Captain Hedi Marzougui, who spoke virtually to the UN. “We felt like second-class citizens with no input or control over our lives.”

Marzougui, a Tunesian-born captain spent three additional months at sea beyond what his original contract had stipulated. He was finally able to return to his family and his home in Florida in late May — however, 300,000 other seamen were not so lucky — they are still out there. (And about 300,000 more are stuck on land hoping to get back out to sea to start working and making money.)

“We received very limited information, and it became increasingly difficult to get vital supplies and technical support. Nations changed regulations on a daily, if not hourly, basis,” Marzougui recalled as he spoke to the UN.

Often, these crews are working 12-hour shifts, without weekends, for months on end. Marzougui warned that extending that grueling experience too long will strain both the physical and mental health of these crews around the world. He likened it to a marathon runner who just crossed the finish line, and is immediately told to turn around and do it again.

Which sounds like a daunting prospect. One that the shipping industry (naturally) believes is totally unnecessary.

According to Guy Platten of the International Chamber of Shipping, the risk these mariners pose of actually spreading the virus between shift changes is relatively low. He says, shipping companies have “no wish whatsoever to bring infections on [their] ships” and have therefore implemented very strict viral protection measures.

However, some ports are still so inflexible about allowing shipping crews in, that they won’t even allow them to unload their own cargo. Instead, local dock workers go out to them and fetch the containers from the ships manually.

The fear of allowing merchant mariners entry during a time of pandemic is understandable. But without a coordinated effort between international governments and the shipping industry, the 300,000 mariners currently out on the open ocean will remain stranded  — locked into a never-ending shift, adrift at sea, stuck in this COVID-purgatory. How long can a person do that before they go insane? How long before the mutinies start? And how long after that, before the global shipping industry grinds to a halt?

Hopefully, this all gets sorted before we find out…