Seafarers — and their chaplains — face unique challenges during COVID-19 pandemic

Seafarers — and their chaplains — face unique challenges during COVID-19 pandemic

In a Thursday, March 26, 2020 file photo, Carnival Cruise ships are docked at the Port of Tampa in Tampa, Florida. (Credit: Chris O'Meara/AP.)

Crew on cruise ships are having a hard time disembarking and getting home during the COVID-19 pandemic – just one of many problems seafarers are facing as the coronavirus crisis affects all facets of the shipping industry.

LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Crew on cruise ships are having a hard time disembarking and getting home during the COVID-19 pandemic – just one of many problems seafarers are facing as the coronavirus crisis affects all facets of the shipping industry.

“Because of the pandemic, the crew on board of these vessels are effectively quarantined on board,” said Martin Foley, the Chief Executive Officer of the Apostleship of the Sea – or Stella Maris – the main Catholic charity supporting seafarers and fishermen.

They can’t go off, and we can’t come on, so we have to find creative ways to support the crew on board these vessels, and it’s a very difficult time for the crew because not only are they quarantined on board these vessels but they are also fearful for their jobs,” he told Crux.

Martin said that it’s projected that more than 50,000 Filipino cruise ship workers alone will be jobless by the end of this year; “so it’s a really difficult situation that the cruise industry faces at this time.”

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Although frequent customers of the cruise industry may have noticed the presence of a Catholic priests on some ships saying Mass for passengers, the main thrust of the Church’s pastoral work is for the crew: There are not only a large number of Filipinos on board, but Indians from the Catholic areas of Goa and Kerala.

Martin said they are fearing for their jobs, since the work pays better than most in their home countries, seafarers are often the main breadwinners for an extended family.

“They are paying tuition fees, hospital fees. They have outstanding loans, and their concern is their ability to continue to pay these loans if they lose their jobs, or if their contracts are truncated in any way,” he explained.

“The cruise industry has been effectively shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic, and in fairness to the cruise ship companies, they have been confronted with an incredibly challenging situation,” he added.

It’s not just cruise ships. Some industry giants are predicting the shipping industry will drop by 25 percent due to the economic distress caused by the recession. In addition, Martin says the reality of how the industry works has had to adapt to the pandemic, and the various lockdown laws passed by most of the countries in the world.

Carnival’s Holland America cruise ship Rotterdam, left, arrives at Port Everglades as the Zaandam, right, is docked during the new coronavirus pandemic, Thursday, April 2, 2020, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Credit: Lynne Sladky/AP.)

“You have had seafarers who are unable to disembark at the end of their contracts, so they have had to extend their contracts for a month or two until such time that they reach a port where they can disembark,” he said.

“It’s fair to say some national governments are better at enabling seafarers to transit to and from their vessels than others. The UK government has pursued a more enlightened approach and has made it quite clear that seafarers are key workers and should be allowed freedom of movement,” Martin said. However, he said Stella Maris in the Philippines says the government there “is adopting a very hardline approach which makes life very difficult for seafarers.”

In addition to the fact their work is vital to keeping the world’s economy going, Martin also noted that the nature of life in the shipping industry means that seafarers are little danger for transmitting COVID-19.

“We talk about going into self-isolation or quarantine for seven days or two weeks, but seafarers that are travelling around the world, often they quarantined for two weeks on board their ship,” he said.

This also affects the pastoral work of the Apostleship of the Sea, since the chaplains are generally based in ports – Martin noted in the early days of the pandemic, most crew politely declined visits, since the ships were disease-free, and wanted to stay that way.

Like the shipping industry, he said the chaplains have had to adapt.

“Obviously, we respect the national law regarding social distancing, and we ensure that our chaplains and ship visitors are provided with PPE [Personal Protective Equipment]– which is absolutely critical – and they are given clear guidance about do’s and don’ts,” Martin explained to Crux.

A container ship is docked at Maher Terminals in Elizabeth, N.J., Monday, May 11, 2020. (Credit: Mark Lennihan/AP.)

“Gangway ministry is something that we can continue to pursue. That would involve bringing packages – maybe phone cards, maybe food, clothing, religious materials, other supplies – to the bottom of the gangway for the crew to collect, maintaining social distance,” he said.

Martin also said chaplains have been keeping in touch with crew through social media, and even pointed to the fact that Carnival – one of the main cruise ship operators – asked the Apostleship of the Sea to supply a weekly video Gospel and reflection to crew on board Carnival vessels in the UK.

“That video is then shared throughout the ship and reaching potentially thousands of crew; and that’s a real way of bringing the Gospel to fellow Christians at this time,” he added.

He also pointed to the fact that the Apostleship of the Sea has built a good relationship with the shipping industry over the years, and he hasn’t seen a spike in incidents of abuse and ill-treatment arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are many individuals and organizations within the shipping industry who have really gone that extra mile to support their crew, to ensure their crew can be repatriated, but there will always be pockets of bad practice, and what we have been stressing to seafarers throughout the world is not to suffer in silence, to contact us so that we can help,” he said.

Martin also said the Catholics in the pews have a part to play, too.

“What we always invite people to do is to pray for seafarers and fisherman and their families, and pray for them now more than ever. We depend on seafarers and fisherman. It’s no exaggeration to say without their good work, without their sacrifices, we would starve.”

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome

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