Caring for Seafarers in Corona Times
The Covid-19 restrictions have also limited the work of the Apostleship of the Sea, which provides pastoral care to seafarers. But its port chaplains
remain committed to their ministry, as GREG WATTS reports.
The global Covid-19 crisis has meant that in South Africa, Stella Maris (Apostleship of the Sea) port chaplains are not being allowed to visit ships.
“At the moment we are not able to get access to any of the ports as our work is deemed ‘non-essential’,” said Nicholas Barends, the charity’s national director and a port chaplain in Cape Town.
“The Mission to Seafarers in Cape Town’s harbour has been closed since the last week of March, and we do not have any access to seafarers at the moment,” he said.
“I was told that the seafarers are not being allowed shore leave and only authorised port officials are allowed entry on board vessels,” Mr Barends explained.
Fellow Cape Town port chaplain Fr Rico Talisic commented on the situation of ministry to fishers.
“At this moment of national lockdown, there is no way of visiting the fishers. But I have contact with some of them who are on the dock,” he explained.
“Every day I send messages to them, asking how they are, giving them updates of what is going on here in Cape Town, and asking them to be careful and stay safe.”
Fr Talisic has been providing fishers with data and simcards.
“With the communication I have with them, I learned there is nothing to worry about—except that many of them have no more cellphone data to continue their communication with family and friends, and to have access to the outside world beyond the port.”
In Durban it’s a similar story, said port chaplain Fr Herman Giraldo.
“From the moment the lockdown started in South Africa, no chaplains were allowed to enter the port. Even the mission has been closed until the lockdown is lifted.”
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Stella Maris port chaplains would be offering a range of practical help and pastoral care to seafarers, such as providing warm clothing, arranging transport to local shops, or lending a listening ear to a seafarer experiencing personal problems or concerns about pay and conditions on board ship.
Elsewhere, the Stella Maris port chaplain in Seychelles—which, at the time of writing, has recorded just 11 Covid-19 cases and no deaths—said a number of vessels have been placed in quarantine.
“In the Seychelles the situation is bad for the seafarers and their families, and even the community, due to lockdown imposed by the government and the health department,” Alfred Napier said.
“The semi-industrial fishers cannot go on with their activities to provide fish to the community and for exports.”
The Philippines accounts for approximately a third of the world’s 1,5 million seafarers.
Manila port chaplain and Stella Maris regional coordinator Fr Paulo Prigol and his team are accommodating 120 seafarers in three seafarers’ centres during lockdown, providing them with daily meals.
The centres, which are cleaned daily with disinfectant, each have a gym, cable TV, and a good Internet service with free WiFi.
“As of now, food supply is available and we are allowed to go to the supermarket once or twice a week only. The local government units have issued identification cards for each centre,” Fr Prigol said.
He added that in the local culture, a seafarer’s family is perceived as being “well-off”. Consequently it is widely thought that there is no need to help them.
“But this is not true, because the family breadwinner is no longer able to provide for them,” the priest explained.
“It is often said that seafarers are ‘one-day millionaires’. This crisis is proving how true it is. They are left without a basic source of income and the little savings they have are going to be depleted very soon.”
Hard on seafarers
In Britain, Southampton port chaplain Fr John Lavers said that lockdown can be especially hard for ship crews.
“If you’re a seafarer, you work on a ship for months at a time. But now you can’t get off it. People say it’s hard having to stay indoors and go out only once or twice a day. But seafarers can’t even do that. It’s very tough for them,” the priest said.
“I know of a number of seafarers who are in isolation on a ship. We are working with shipping companies to help them communicate with their families back home.”
The Covid-19 pandemic is likely to have a huge impact on the mental health of some seafarers, he suggested.
“Seafaring life is generally very isolating. But when you know you have family back home that are fighting the virus, that’s very stressful on seafarers. They are so far away and can do nothing,” Fr Lavers said.
“In some cases, family or friends have died from the virus. The seafarers feel helpless. They can’t leave work. Sometimes they have to work longer than their established contract, because they can’t get home,” he noted.
“And families back home get stressed when they hear a seafarer is in quarantine or in hospital. This is a very stressful time for seafarers,” Fr Lavers added.
“You also have seafarers at home who can’t go to work to earn money for their families. If seafaring is your life and only means of income, it’s a very difficult situation.”
Martin Foley, European regional coordinator and chief executive officer of Stella Maris in Britain, said that despite the restrictions placed on the ministry’s’ activities by the Covid-19 pandemic, “Stella Maris chaplains all around the world remain active, finding ever-more creative ways to support seafarers, fishers and their families”.
“We will remain here for them as the world emerges from the pandemic and the true impact is felt,” Mr Foley said.
“The world may have changed forever but our commitment to service remains unchanged.”
For more information on the Apostleship of the Sea in South Africa, see www.apostleshipofthesea.org.za