An international medical rescue mission is underway to help 300 seafarers caught up in a suspected coronavirus outbreak on 20 ferries in the Indian Ocean, after crews spent weeks stranded onboard without medical supplies.
International maritime charity the Sailors' Society, which is coordinating relief efforts, said about 70 per cent of an estimated total 450 crew on the inter-island ferries, anchored near Port Blair, on the Andaman Islands have shown symptoms of the virus.
The seafarers, most of whom are from India or the Andaman Islands and work on the domestic ships, have been quarantined on board for more than three weeks without access to basic medicine such as paracetamol or cough syrup. They do have mobile phone access.
The Society got involved after being informed of the crews' plight by a master based on the island who is a member of the Port Blair Merchant Navy Officers' Association.
The charity is working with the Andaman Islands authorities to help deliver £500 (GBP) worth of medication to the desperate crews this week.
After hearing of the situation, it contacted one of its partners in India, the Voluntary Health Services Hospital in Chennai, which has provided the over-the-counter medicine.
The medicines were compiled based on the medical advice of a local Andaman doctor and are being flown in. The Andaman Directorate of Shipping will be coordinating the distribution of the medicine to the ships alongside a local doctor and the Port Blair Merchant Navy Officers' Association.
Port Bair does not currently have an adequate supply of covid testing kits for the seafarers, a Sailors' Society spokesperson said.
The seafarers are members of a local union.
Sailors' Society's chief executive Sara Baade said: 'The men weren't allowed on shore because the authorities didn't want the infection to spread, especially as there is very little medical capacity on the island.
'To have an outbreak of this virus on board ships, where everyone is in a confined space, is frightening enough. When they have no medical supplies, and no possibility of getting ashore for medical help, it must be nothing short of terrifying.'
International Maritime Organization (IMO) guidance issued in May 2020 urges immediate access to shoreside medical care for ill seafarers. The recommendations included monitoring for signs or symptoms of Covid-19 prior to disembarkation, isolation of suspected or confirmed cases, use of proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and minimising exposure during disembarkation and transfer to a medical facility.
The Sailors' Society stressed, however, that the Andaman government is doing its best and that the society is working closely with the Directorate of Shipping.
'Unfortunately, an issue of the current pandemic is that everything, including medicine, is in shorter supply,' the spokesperson said.