Andrew’s monthly blog highlights the difficulties seafarers are still facing and the efforts being made to support them as some ports begin to open

5th August 2020
In some countries, there has been a hint of normality. I think some had the feeling that “it might be all over”. Sadly, there have been many hard reminders that it is not so. Some countries are still suffering the first wave of the virus, with numbers mounting in a frightening way. In others, cases are once again on the rise. “Normal”, I fear, is a long way off yet.

Just down the road from where I live in Oxford is one of the places where a vaccine is being developed at breakneck speed. There is optimism that it will work, but no certainty. It could be ready by the end of the year. We hope and pray that it will be so. Without a vaccine, clearly things are going to remain difficult.

For seafarers, things are very far from normal. As I write, some of the progress made in transit and repatriation arrangements has gone backwards, as COVID levels have increased in some key countries. Many, many thousands of seafarers are still working way beyond their contract end. From our ongoing contact with seafarers in ports, through our digital interactions and through our recently published Seafarers Happiness Index report, we know just how much this is impacting on seafarers – and their families. Frustration, exhaustion, uncertainty, anxiety and stress are taking their toll. The shipping industry has been working superbly to resolve this situation but many governments have been cautious and reluctant to facilitate the necessary arrangements. And do not forget that for all stuck on their ships there are equal numbers who have been unable to start work. They, and those who have lost jobs (especially in the Cruise sector), are facing financial distress.

At MtS, along with many others, we continue to appeal for urgent change. This is an emergency and needs an emergency response. The contrast has frequently been made between seafarers and airline staff, the latter enjoying priority treatment, the former often struggling to be heard at all. I continue to be enormously proud of so much that MtS has achieved in recent months. We have sustained a strong measure of in-port service against a deeply challenging background. We have responded to crisis situations on ships. We have developed exciting and well-received digital services. Our Family Support Networks have been doing great work with so many families in need. Stranded seafarers have received pastoral and financial support and advice. With many of our income streams suffering a big hit – and with the need for urgent spending in response to all that the virus has thrown at seafarers – our fundraising team has done magnificent work. Our Flying Angel Campaign has been very successful, and we are so grateful to so many, especially within the shipping industry, for their extraordinary generosity.

In some countries, we are beginning to be able to open up more of our port ministries. We are having to do so in a very cautious and staged way. Guidelines and best practice have been carefully drawn up in conversation with the shipping industry. They need to be absolutely certain that we do not represent any risk to seafarers. One particular challenge is that many of our older staff and volunteers are in the vulnerable category and may not be able to return for some time. However, wherever we can, we will reopen our centres and transport services as soon as we can, with all the necessary precautions in place. Ship visiting and supply delivery has continued and will now develop further. Some of our chaplains are inevitably frustrated by restrictions limiting visits to the gangway, other than in exceptional circumstances. Such frustration is inevitable as all our compassionate instincts are to want to “normalise” our face to face contact. However, if we are to retain the confidence of the industry, we have to observe careful boundaries.

I salute the energy, creativity and commitment being put into re-establishing our face to face work, as well as into our wider services, including digital. This is a new world – and it may be so for some time. Perhaps some things will never be the same again. What is clear is that seafarers and their families need us as much as ever, probably more. We will do all we can to meet those needs and to provide that “hospitality”, in its widest sense, that lies at the very heart of our Christian values, rooted in the ever-welcoming love of God.

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