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The Mask of Cassandra (Forum)


By Michael Grey*

Nearly a year into the wretched pandemic and it is difficult to determine any real cheer amid the winter snow. Some fifty odd flag states have queued up to declare their allegiance to the Neptune concord that defines seafarers as “key workers” but it is clearly a lot easier to sign the bit of paper than to implement its provisions and let these essential folk freely come and go. We perhaps should feel a bit happier that we now live in a PDT (post Donald Trump) era, but as I read President Biden’s prescription for mandatory mask wearing aboard all commercial vessels, it didn’t seem that an age of sweetness and light had dawned.

It seemed an odd thing to be decreeing, so very early in his presidency, beset with so many national and international problems, with the US Coast Guard now tasked to ensure compliance. But then, fear of disease being imported from over the seas has pretty well become internationally entrenched and largely accounts for the less than charitable treatment of seafarers during this past miserable year. So we shouldn’t necessarily suggest that the US is being any more prescriptive, now that mask refusnik Trump is out of the way, than any other country.

From the accounts of pilots and others who board ships regularly, seafarers have been disciplined wearers of Covid-protective clothing when they are encountered. At the same time one should not forget that for a seafarer a ship is his or her home away from home and the authorities maybe ought not to be too intrusive about the wearing of masks, once the ship is free from the land. That is especially the case when they find it so hard to get to their real homes and have to overstay their contracts by weeks or months. You would like to think that they could remove them to eat or drink, and sleep unencumbered. I would hope this might be made clear in the small print of the President’s requirements and the Coast Guard’s more detailed prescriptions.

Mind you, as the pandemic progresses and the variants become more various, the protocols become more bizarre. Just today I was reading some scientist was suggesting to counter a new especially virulent strain, we should wear two masks at once. Even if this prevents the bugs either coming or going, surely it would gradually bend one’s ears forward, so that after another year of this nonsense, the whole population would be bat-winged. And would two masks be enough, as the fast-mutating virus procreates?

There was an article by a working pilot describing how the pleasure of his working day was diminished by all this mask-wearing and lack of human contact. A smile and a handshake on boarding and leaving a ship, along with an offer of a cup of coffee – all things of the past, but how much to be regretted. It’s the same for everyone, but mumbling through a mask and trying to transmit expression with one’s eyes is a measure of our misery, as we obey our governments’ dictats and recall our lost freedoms.
Perhaps most depressing is the way that the slightest prospect of better things ahead is so immediately and firmly sat on by the scientists who have been grotesquely empowered by the pandemic to rule our lives. Some cheerful news about the “roll-out” of vaccines is instantly refuted by some laboratory rat who bustles forward in his white coat to tell us that our misery must continue regardless, probably for years ahead, according to some gloom relishing scientific Cassandra on the radio the other day.

You must take your amusement where you can find it. Mine is in observing the degree of “social distancing” that is observed on our pavements when taking our permitted dose of daily exercise. Of an age, and carrying a stick, I find that there are those who will leap into the gutter or even cross the road rather than invade my two metre “separation zone”. One exceptionally zealous mask-wearer jumped into the road with such alacrity that he was nearly flattened by a truck. Had the driver been less alert, he would have been able to comfort himself, with his dying breath, that his Covid precautions had been obeyed to the last. Photo: Captain Jean Cloutier

  • Formerly Editor of Lloyd’s List, Michael Grey is widely regarded as the senior statesman of world shipping journalism. This most recent pithy commentary on a maritime theme is published with the kind permission of Maritime Advocate Online.