Greg Watts 1.5.20

At first sight, the hospitals in the Birmingham Archdiocese that have found themselves at the heart of the Covid-19 crisis may seem to have little to do with seafarers. 

Yet much of the medical equipment and medicine on the wards has come by ship. So has the fuel for the ambulances.

Despite the vital role seafarers play in our lives, they are often forgotten. However, Stella Maris (Apostleship of the Sea) port chaplains in the UK and around the world are continuing to provide pastoral care and practical help this during the battle with Covid-19.

Peter Barrigan, port chaplain on the Tees, said helping seafarers to main contact their families back home is a priority. “We know that they are not getting leave to go home, so work life is being extended, which can lead to more fatigue. The important thing is for them to keep in touch with their families, which is why we are doing all we can to keep the supplied with phone card top- ups. Remember, their families are in lock down back home and the guys will be worrying how they are coping.”

Father John Lavers, director of chaplaincy, and based in Southampton, is providing packages made up of sim cards, woolly hats, chocolates, and spiritual reading matter, which he delivers to the bottom of a ship’s gangway and then notifies the seafarer on watch.

Before arriving in port, he has to speak to the port authorities to find out what the situation is and whether there are any cases on ships of seafarers who have been infected by Covid-19. While in port, he has to wear latex gloves, a face mask, and carry hand sanitizer.

“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 only go out once or twice a day. But seafarers can’t even do that. It’s very tough for them,” he said.

In Aberdeen, port chaplain Doug Duncan has been doing washing for a fisherman in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. “Although I am restricted from getting into hospital, my connections there have arranged for a nurse who lives quite close to drop in his washing in a washable bag and I insert this into the washing machine.

“Once dry and ironed I drop it off at the hospital door and my friend the nurse takes it into the fisherman along with bits and pieces, such as new socks, underwear, hats, gloves, tooth brush and paste, soap, and sweets, along with a rosary and a seafarers’ prayer book.”

The Philippines accounts for approximately a third of the world’s 1.5 million seafarers. Port chaplain in Manila and Stella Maris regional coordinator Fr Paulo Prigol and his team are accommodating 120 seafarers in three seafarers’ centres during lockdown and providing them with daily meals.

“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.”

The centres, which are cleaned daily with disinfectant, each have a gym, cable TV, and a good internet service with free Wi-Fi.

“The public health system is extremely limited. Hospitals are full and other facilities are also full,” said Father Prigol. “In addition to that, as of the moment at least 24,000 seafarers (the vast majority on cruise ships) have been repatriated. It is expected that by the end of first week of May there will be at least 30 cruise ships arriving in Manila Bay bringing home Filipino cruise ship workers.

He added that in the local culture a seafarer’s family is perceived as “well off” and therefore there is no need of helping them. “But this is not true, because the family breadwinner is no longer able to provide for them.

“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 are going to be depleted very soon.

“But this crisis is also bringing out one of the best Filipino trait: the ‘bayanihan spirit’ (solidarity). I have never seen or experienced such kind of solidarity among seafarers and migrants before.”