A general view shows the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship at Daikoku pier cruise terminal in Yokohama on February 24, 2020. (Photo: Philip Fong, AFP)

Covid-19: A Particular Philippine Problem

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The Covid-19 pandemic has sent the cruise industry floundering. This is hitting maritime seaman hard, in particular, those from the Philippines.

The surge of Covid-19 infections sweeping across the earth has left the international cruise industry floundering. Cruise ships are proving to be particularly conducive for the spread of the deadly virus. In early February, the fate of the people on the Diamond Princess docked at Yokohama featured heavily in media coverage of the spread of the virus beyond China. In all, 712 of the 3,711 people on board caught the virus. This cruise ship precipitated the largest, by far, cluster of cases in Japan. On 19 March, the sister ship of the Diamond Princess, the Ruby Princess, docked in Sydney and 133 people with the virus disembarked, creating the largest single cluster of cases in Australia (and howls of protest Down Under). Many subsequently travelled from Sydney to other parts of Australia and the world.

In response, many governments have banned cruise ships from docking and encouraged people to cancel planned cruises. There are a growing number of cruise ships afloat with nowhere to go. Norwegian Cruise Line and Oceania Cruises have cancelled their Asia tours for the coming months, while Princess Cruises has called off all its voyages. Market leaders Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean have seen their stock values plummet by around 80 per cent.

The relatively poor country is famed for tapping on the sweat and toil of its overseas Filipino workers to keep family and the country’s finances afloat. It will soon rue the ramifications of the industry’s woes.

It is unfortunate that the industry has become the unwitting poster child of the spread of the coronavirus. In terms of impact and longer-lasting legacy effects, however, this has hit thousands of Filipino families particularly hard. Filipinos, by far, make up the largest share of cruise ship employment by nationality. Filipino seamen are particularly suited for the trade. They have good English language skills (in 2018, North Americans accounted for a half all cruise passengers) and a willingness to work overseas for modest salaries. In addition, their country has a comparatively strong maritime training infrastructure.

Most Filipino seamen are vulnerable employees hired on short-term contracts; with many of their entitlements whittled down by placement firms. No wonder, the Philippines supplies over a quarter of seafarers globally (according to one estimate, the cruise industry employed 1.2 million people with a wage bill of $50 billion in 2018).

From a human interest standpoint, the industry’s Covid-19 woes have hit Filipino seamen particularly hard. Close to half the 1,100 crew on the ill-fated Diamond Princess were Filipino. Of that number, 59 became infected, making this the largest Filipino cluster. The relatively poor country is famed for tapping on the sweat and toil of its overseas Filipino workers to keep family and the country’s finances afloat. It will soon rue the ramifications of the industry’s woes. In 2019, sea-based remittances to the Philippines topped $6.5 billion, accounting for over one-fifth of total remittances.

The cruise industry has never faced a perfect storm such as Covid-19. It will be particularly important for the Philippines that it recovers – and quickly.

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