One of the very many troubling consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic is the decision of some Australian authorities to abandon a commitment to basic human rights and the rule of law, either by denying or not facilitating access to medical care.
Access to healthcare is a basic human right. Australia is a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) and is therefore bound by the International Health Regulations 2005. Those international regulations impose duties on countries to provide travellers with access to an appropriate medical service.
In Australia, section 4(b) of the Commonwealth’s Biosecurity Act 2015 says that one of the objects of the Act is to give effect to Australia’s international rights and obligations. This specifically includes the International Health Regulations.
By signing up to international rules and by enacting them into the body of our domestic law, Australia has made a promise to every person who works on the sea that he or she will have access to care if he or she is injured or falls sick.
As you will see below, through selfish bureaucratic restrictions, in some cases, some Australian States have broken those promises and thrown away the pieces.
Cases reported to Shipping Australia
The International Chamber of Shipping has recently called for help cataloguing failures to assist seafarers to access medical care. Shipping Australia has responded by asking for industry input. Several brief case reports have been provided, which we have forwarded to the ICS. The reports are as follows:
June 2020, Fremantle
A crew member sprained his ankle and was unable to access a doctor for medical attention. The WA Police approval process could not provide clearance before the ship sailed. The vessel sailed and the seafarer did not see a doctor until he arrived in Singapore about nine or ten days later.
July 2020, Newcastle
Dentist required. Only able to get a mobile dentist and the procedure was carried out in the back of a van on the wharf.
August to October 2020, Melbourne
High blood pressure, doctor’s visit denied.
Broken tooth. Dental visit denied.
Right index finger jammed in door, possible fracture, severe pain and finger deformed. Request for Doctor visit and X- rays denied due to 14-day isolation requirements.
Skin infection. Doctor’s visit denied.
October 2020, Bunbury
Police approval received too late resulting in dental appointment cancelled.
Police approval simply not received. Application submitted two days prior to appointment.
October 2020, Port Hedland
WA Police refused a crew medical request.
October 2020, Newcastle
Crew member began urinating blood but was not permitted to go to hospital. Eventually the seafarer was allowed to go to an approved local GP, however NSW Health did not advise the doctor. Seafarer then needed scans, however his exemption did not allow this to happen. There was insufficient time to arrange an additional exemption.
Seafarers can be treated safely
Shipping Australia is not oblivious to the fact that there is a global pandemic, nor are we oblivious to the fact that the virus can be deadly. We are also not oblivious to the fact that many patients with the virus can be, and have been safely transported and cared for in a humane manner.
We are also aware that seafarers who do not have access to medical care can be left in agony.
Do you remember the last time you had a severe toothache? Can you remember what that felt like? Can you imagine not being able to see a dentist and being forced to live with the pain for days? Or weeks?
Seafarers deserve better.
Respect international obligations, allow access medical care
Shipping Australia urges that out of this catalogue of monstrous shame, there is a renewed Australian commitment to respecting the basic humanity of those people who labour to bring us our vital needs by sailing the great, and always dangerous oceans.
Shipping Australia again calls upon all Australian State governments, authorities and government departments to live up to our promises, to abide by the rule of law and to do their utmost to help seafarers have access to medical care.