New Delhi: After suffering from a severe fever and cough for days at sea, 37-year-old Bejoy Sequeira sent a worrisome WhatsApp voice note to his brother, Eldon.
“I’m feeling breathless. I think three or four people have been infected too,” he said in Konkani on the morning of 17 September, hours before he died aboard a private vessel called MV Jabal Al Khawr that was travelling from Malaysia to Cape Town.
Four days later, after the ship was diverted to Mauritius, the captain tested positive for Covid-19. The captain and crew are currently quarantining and undergoing periodical tests in the island country, the Indian High Commission in Mauritius told ThePrint in an email.
From 17 to 30 September, the body of Sequeira, a chief cook aboard the ship, was kept in a “mortuary” aboard the ship, according to the High Commission.
Speaking to ThePrint, Directorate General of Shipping Amitabh Kumar noted that “ships usually turn one of the freezers, where they keep food items, into a mortuary of sorts”.
On 30 September, the body was handed over to the Mauritian Police, which will soon conduct an inquiry and post-mortem.
This is yet another example of how the jobs of seafarers have become more dangerous during the pandemic, according to Abdulgani Serang, general secretary, National Union of Seafarers of India (NUSI).
“There have been many cases during Covid where seafarers struggled to get medical help aboard the ship. It’s ironic that cargo is often treated better than the crew,” he told ThePrint.
DG shipping, others working to repatriate body
Sequeira’s body is currently being kept at Jeetu Hospital in Port Louis, Mauritius. Meanwhile, the Indian High Commission, Mauritian authorities and the Indian shipping ministry are currently working to repatriate the mortal remains.
Oman Shipping Company, which owns the ship, and V-Ships, a Mumbai-based crew management company with which Sequeira was employed for over ten years, are also assisting.
However, Kumar said it may take another two weeks. “They [Mauritian authorities] cannot send the body back without conducting a post-mortem. Since the body was found to be Covid positive as per the test, I have been informed that they will now wait 14 days and only after that conduct a post-mortem,” he said.
Though there is not a lot of concrete research on whether the virus can be transmitted from deceased people, a peer-reviewed research paper, published in ScienceDirect in May, noted that Covid could persist in a corpse for more than 30 days.
With these procedures, Sequeira’s family is likely to wait nearly a month more to receive his mortal remains.
‘Breaks my heart that his body was in a freezer for so many days’
Sequeira’s family, which is based in Goa, has been waiting since his death in mid-September to bury his mortal remains.
The victim’s wife, Femila, and elder brother, Eldon, told ThePrint that he was not suffering from comorbidities and was unable to get a vaccine as he embarked on the tour in March this year, when jabs were not as easily available.
Femila told ThePrint: “What breaks my heart is that they kept his body in a freezer for so many days. Also, as Christians, we don’t believe in delays after someone dies. The funeral must be done immediately but we’ve been waiting for weeks,” she said, adding that her two daughters, aged 4 and 5, are too young to understand that their father has died.
Family blames V-Ships, captain for negligence
V-Ships spokesperson Ajay Yadav said other crew members on MV Jabal Al Khawr had also shown signs of Covid-19, confirming what Sequeira told his brother in the WhatsApp voice note.
Yadav told ThePrint: “We are aggrieved by Bejoy’s death. The vessel is still at the Mauritian port and not only him, but the Master and crew members were showing signs of Covid too.”
The victim’s family, however, alleges that Sequeira died due to negligence on the part of the crew and the captain on the ship also did not provide medical assistance in time.
DG Kumar told ThePrint: “If the log books suggest that there was some delay in providing medical assistance on the part of the captain, then we will take up the issue with the flag state.”
The flag state is the location of where a ship is registered or licensed with. In this case, it is Marshall Islands, a country located in the Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and the Philippines.
This is also not the first time that Indian seafarers have been stranded on international waters.
Earlier this year, several Indian sailors returned home after spending months stranded in Chinese waters after being refused permission by Chinese authorities to offload cargo or conduct a crew change due to Covid-related restrictions.