SEA Sunday, celebrated on July 12, takes on an extraordinary significance this year because of the isolation experienced by seafarers unable to come ashore due to the worldwide pandemic.
In Brisbane, as in ports everywhere, ships coming in to dock, carrying most of the world’s trade, have been restricted in allowing crews to step down the gang way and come ashore.
It means that many crews have spent months stranded and working at sea, compounding their isolation and feelings of loneliness far away from their countries, loved ones and local Churches Centacare’s Barry Guest, who works for the Stella Maris Mission to Seafarers Centre at Wynnum near the Port of Brisbane, said chaplains, managers and volunteers had increased their efforts to serve vulnerable confined seafarers when ships docked.
Since March, Mr Guest said the mission had delivered hundreds of care packages to crews unable to come ashore in Brisbane.
And last month the mission provided prayers and pastoral support for a grieving ship’s crew after their captain died suddenly at sea.
In a Sea Sunday message, Cardinal Peter Turkson, Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said while COVID-19 had caused many countries to lockdown to prevent the spread of the disease, the maritime industry continued its operation, “adding a multitude of challenges to the already problematic lives of the seafarers, and putting them on the front line in fighting against the coronavirus”.
“Vessels that are transporting almost 90 per cent of products that are badly needed to carry on our normal lives in these taxing circumstances such as medication and medical equipment, remain at seas,” Cardinal Turkson said.
“Before it came to a complete stop, the cruise industry struggled to convince governments and port authorities to open their ports where they could safely disembark their guests.
“At the same time, they frantically tried to find ways to contain the spread of infections among passengers and crew in ships that became incubators for the COVID-19.”
Much was in the media about the Ruby Princess cruise ship and the plight of seafarers on that vessel.
Likewise, thousands of the seafarers have already spent 14 months straight working aboard vessels, way beyond the end of their contract due to closed borders and COVID-19 restrictions.
Estimates suggest that, every month, 100,000 seafarers who finish their contracts and look forward to flying home were prevented from doing so by the outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent closure of borders and flights.
Accordingly, thousands of seafarers who were ready to leave for a new contract were stranded in hotels and dormitories around the globe, reduced to beggarly dependence on charitable institutions for their basic needs such as foods, toiletries and phone sim cards.
“Because of the absence of shore leave, and restricted port entry for ships visiting, seafarers on board the vessels suffer isolation, severe physical and mental stress that brings many crews on the verge of desperation and, unfortunately, committing suicide,” Cardinal Turkson said.
“We have reports of many seafarers with serious and potentially life treating medical conditions which are unrelated to COVID-19.
“These still need emergency medical care in land-based national hospitals, which unfortunately were denied them or delayed until they had to be carried on stretchers.
“Furthermore, seafarers who returned home after a long and dramatic journey have to undergo quarantine or suffer discrimination or stigmatisation in their own country, because they are considered as carriers of the corona virus.
“Regrettably, we have also to deplore the fact that while seafarers endeavour to keep the supply chains moving with dedication and at the cost of huge personal sacrifices, some unscrupulous ship-owners, crewing agencies and managers use the excuse of the pandemic to dismiss their obligations to guarantee their labour rights, including proper wages and the promotion of safe and secure working environments for all them.”
A report on the first three months of 2020 shows a 24 per cent increase in piracy attacks and attempted attacks compared to the same period in 2019.
“Apparently, the coronavirus is not stopping armed robberies who continue to be a threat for seafarers, adding further anxiety and apprehension to lives, which are already lived under the pressure of uncertainties, caused by the coronavirus,” Cardinal Turkson said.
“To all of the experiences above of the seafarers, which describe a dangerous form of livelihood, we must now consider the real threat of losing even this precarious livelihood, because it will mean for many the total loss of income and inability to assume social and domestic responsibilities, such as, payment of utilities bills, education of dependants, welfare of family.”
Cardinal Turkson said the celebration of Sea Sunday, especially by Christians, should invite us all to exercising a “preferential option for the poor” seafarers, a pledge to live in solidarity with them.
The theme for this year’s Sea Sunday is “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
(Matthew 11: 28) A national appeal for Stella Maris, Apostleship of the Sea, will provide practical and spiritual support to seafarers in these challenging times.