Before the pandemic, 100,000 seafarers traveled in and out of the world’s ports every month. Some had spent weeks or months aboard the cargo ships, tankers and other merchant vessels that are essential to moving products and commodities across the globe. In a ritual little noticed outside the industry, new crews would regularly arrive to relieve them, ensuring that the world’s vast merchant fleet wasn’t endangered by fatigued sailors. Now, thanks to the coronavirus, this critical process is breaking down, threatening the safety of the world’s waterways and the functioning of a business that carries 80 percent of global trade.

Worldwide, more than 1.6 million seafarers are serving on merchant vessels. Filipinos make up about 25 percent of them, while most of the rest come from other developing nations. Pay is good, especially when compared to wages back home, but the work is invariably hard and dangerous. Storms, piracy and accidents are among the most obvious hazards. More treacherous still is the fatigue that can build up due to lack of sleep and long voyages.

Even before the coronavirus, seafarer fatigue was causing alarm in the industry. Globalization has encouraged shipping companies to set highly competitive schedules with fewer and fewer crew members. Although some rules and regulations have been established to limit work hours, a recent study showed that sleeplessness is a problem at all stages of a ship’s journey, and that fatigue and stress increase as a voyage nears its end, irrespective of length. Among other problems, this can lead to significant health issues for seafarers, including depression.