By Annamaria Dall’Anese • PhD Anthropology
The world’s 1.2 million merchant marines are responsible for transporting around 90% of global cargo. In spite of their importance for the international economy, they have not been featured prominently in the anthropological literature. The reason why even those ethnographers who have conducted fieldwork on this topic have spent very short periods at sea (e.g. Bloor 2005: 768) can be related to the challenges to board a merchant vessel. These are numerous, and include vaccinations, insurance, training and visas. These difficulties also explain why I decided to present a library-based dissertation (entitled ‘The Effects of the Adoption of Information and Communication Technology on Merchant Marines’ Health-Seeking Practices’). Drawing upon sources of various types (e.g. anthropological, corporate and medical), my guiding question was: what impact can the implementation of ICT have on the health-seeking practices of cargo-ship communities?
Just as ships in the past used to be an incubator for epidemics, absorbed at one port and spread at the next (Echenberg 2007), they are now a hub of medical information transmitted to and from land, formally and informally. In fact, because of this information transmission, the implementation of ICT on-board merchant vessels turns out to be a double-edged sword.
Whilst the upside is perhaps obvious, the downside is that it can exacerbate the inverse relation between illness and employability. An ICT-empowered telemedicine can lead to sensitive information about seafarers’ health being passed on to their employers, thus threatening their occupational chances. Therefore, merchant marines may be tempted to hide their clinical conditions in order to keep a job that allows them to gain economic resources, which in turn contributes to their wellbeing. Clearly, the medical problems that are concealed can deteriorate if left untreated.
I propose a shift from ‘right to health’ to ‘right to illness’ to counter this phenomenon. At present, the underlying principle of telemedicine is an idealistic ‘right to health’ rather than a realistic ‘right to be ill’. I suggest that a shift from the expectation that crewmembers should be healthy to the acknowledgement that health does sometimes fail them would entail a more pragmatic approach to the management of sickness on-board. As employers could not, by any good reason, deny their employees the right to be ill, they would be pushed to dissect the notion of illness into less vague and more manageable components.
There is room to be optimistic, though. In the past, if a crewmember was ‘under the weather’, a ship could contact a doctor on land via radio or satellite telephony. Nowadays, the options offered by telemedicine are manifold, and include email and faster data transmission. This is why modern telemedicine can offer seafarers a level of healthcare comparable to that enjoyed by land-based communities.
Additionally, the informal use of personal communication devices can contribute to seafarers’ wellbeing by allowing them to consult medical websites and join online health support groups. Independent internet access can also allow merchant marines to receive the emotional support of their families. This is crucial on board, as I had the opportunity to discover during a brief passage on a cargo ship. In 2009, I sailed from Newcastle, Australia, to Singapore as a passenger/English teacher, which triggered my interest in merchant-marine communities. This remains a rather unchartered territory in the otherwise densely populated waters of anthropology, and therefore one well-worth exploring.
Bloor M. (2005) Observations of Shipboard Illness Behavior: Work Discipline and the Sick Role in a Residential Work Setting. Qualitative Health Research 15(6):766 – 777.
Echenberg M. (2007) Plague Ports: The global urban impact of bubonic plague, 1894 – 1901. New York: New York University Press.