COVID outbreak highlights serious health risk posed by use of foreign seafarers on Australian Antarctic Division summer mission

An outbreak of COVID infections at a Chilean research base, forcing the costly and challenging air evacuation of 36 people from Antarctica, has highlighted the serious health risk posed by the Australian Antarctic Division’s insistence on using foreign seafarers for their upcoming summer mission.

The outbreak at the General Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme research base resulted in 26 members of the Chilean army and 10 maintenance workers becoming infected, while three crew members from a support ship that visited the base have also tested positive.

The Maritime Union of Australia said the outbreak – the first time COVID cases have occurred in Antarctica – highlighted the significant risk posed by the AAD’s insistence on using foreign seafarers from COVID hotspots to crew the temporary replacement vessel for the Aurora Australis.

“While the Aurora was crewed by Australian seafarers, as its permanent replacement vessel the RSV Nuyina will be, the AAD has bizarrely chosen to use foreign seafarers for this year’s mission, despite being in the midst of a global pandemic,” MUA Tasmania Deputy Branch Secretary Alisha Bull said.

“The MPV Everest, which was contracted for this summer after construction delays with the RSV Nuyina, will arrive in Tasmania shortly from South Korea, with a crew entirely made up of foreign seafarers, many from COVID hotspots.

“We have repeatedly warned the AAD and the Federal Government that the upcoming Antarctic mission was being unnecessarily jeopardised through the use of foreign seafarers, particularly as the Australian crew from the Aurora – with decades of experience in Antarctica – could have been used.

“This outbreak at the Chilean research base, which forced the costly and challenging mass evacuation of three dozen people, may well be repeated at an Australian research base.

“It is shocking that the health of everyone going to Antarctica, along with the success of Australia’s research mission, is being jeopardised because of a short-sighted decision to utilise foreign workers.

“Australian seafarers would also bring extensive Antarctic experience developed on the Aurora over many years, along with a proven track record of safety and environmental protection.

“Former crew members from the Aurora, or those contracted to work on the Nuyina, remain willing and able to join the Everest and ensure this voyage remains COVID free.

“It is not too late to address the serious COVID risks by having Australia seafarers join the Everest when it arrives in Tasmania.”

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