The Ministry to Seafarers (M2S)

A Tale of Two Pandemics

COVID-19 & Sea Blindness: 
A Tale of Two Pandemics

April has passed and with it went the beginning of the most significant changes we've ever lived through. The easy stuff has been learning new terms like self-isolation, social distancing, personal protective equipment (PPE) and flattening the curve. Even increasing our technological literacy by attending school or church online or learning how to use video communication tools has been relatively simple.

What has been difficult has been coping with feelings of helplessness as loved ones die alone, watching essential workers make huge sacrifices on the front lines of the pandemic, not being able to visit friends or relatives in seniors' residences and with each new loss, learning to cope without physical contact. Into this mix, at Ministry to Seafarers, we add another layer of frustration as we journey with seafarers who are stuck in the middle of it all...they are casualties of sea blindness and COVID-19.

What is Sea Blindness?

Global shipping is considered the gateway to prosperity and survival. Sea blindness is the inability to appreciate and understand the dependency that humanity has on the sea and those who work on it. 

How Do I Know if I Have Sea Blindness?

Sea blindness afflicts most land-based people, especially in North America. How do you know if you have it? There is a simple test. 
  1. When someone mentions a seafarer you say, "What's a seafarer?"
  2. You know 90% of the stuff you use and own comes from a store but you don't know how it got there.
  3.  You think piracy is a thing that happened in the distant past. 
  4.  When you think of a sailor or seafarer, you picture a white, bearded guy with tattoos.

If you've just discovered you're sea blind, you may be wondering how you got this mysterious affliction. The experts are divided...either through indifference or ignorance. Sea blindness affects a very high percentage of the population. So it's not all your fault. Asymptomatic carriers have been spreading the illness around for years.

How Are Seafarers Affected By My Sea Blindness and COVID-19?

Since the global COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a grinding halt, seafarers have been victims of lockdowns and travel restrictions, mostly unable to leave their ships when they dock in ports around the world and unable to fly home at the end of their contracts. Unlike healthcare workers and others fighting on the front lines that rightly make the headlines each day and receive public support and encouragement, seafarers are unseen, living on the literal margins where the shore meets the waterways in cities around the world. They are here with us but they are not.

Due to security restrictions, most ports are out of sight of the general population, another compounding factor in our sea blindness. Though seafarers are considered essential workers in some countries (like Canada), this designation is not universal. Seafarers work in a globalized world and the standards that govern their movements need to be standardized too. Otherwise, a seafarer could fly out of a port city where seafarers are designated essential workers, but get stuck in a connecting city where they don't have the same designation.

This would never happen with healthcare professionals travelling to meet urgent needs in a pandemic. Or airline crews. Or other essential workers. So why are seafarers stuck on the job?

Is There a Cure for Sea Blindness?

There is good news! Sea blindness is not fatal and everyone can recover. It turns out that the key to recovery is giving. Numerous studies have shown that giving is good for your health. Giving is also the good kind of spread it around.

What does giving to a seafarer look like? Seafarers are no different from others. They want to be seen and respected. They want their work to matter and to be treated fairly. They also appreciate being thanked. Think of a seafarer as the silent partner in your life, bringing you 90% of everything you use and own. Then think of ways that you can give something back to them. Some ideas to get you started:
  1. Acknowledge the important role that seafarers play in your life. 
  2. Write to your government's transport federation to advocate for seafarers and lend your voice to the efforts to have them recognized as global essential workers.
  3. Create a social media post thanking seafarers for their work and tag your local Seafarers' Centre. Use the #ISupplyTheWorld hashtag as well. 
  4. Pray for the safety and protection of seafarers and their families.
  5. Make a donation to your local Seafarers' Centre. They are already on the front lines serving the crews that dock in port by running their errands for them, lending a listening ear and providing encouragement.  (More about that below.) 

What Can I Learn from Seafarers?

Gratitude. Learn to say thank you for small things. In the Port of Montreal, we are in daily contact with seafarers. We've received many messages of thanks from them:

“Many thanks for all your support and the SIM cards and top ups. Your support was a huge help for everybody on board.”
“Thanks…for visiting and rendering assistance for crew on board in time of Covid-19 restrictions. Even we cannot invite on board and share cup of coffee, crew…appreciated the help.”
“Hello David. The guys are sending their warmest gratitude to you. Thank you so much. God bless you always and regards to the ministry. Hope to see you before I signed off next month.”

Resilience. Remember our feelings of helplessness as loved ones die alone? How about not being able to visit friends or relatives in seniors' residences? Or coping without the physical contact of loved ones? These are daily realities for seafarers working aboard a ship, isolated from loved ones and far from home for 6-9 months at a time. They have learned to manage boredom though connecting with their mates. They take pleasure in small things. They practice gratitude.

How Is Ministry to Seafarers Responding?

Hospitality. Ships and seafarers continue to arrive in Montreal and we are working to serve their needs in new and differing ways. While our chaplains have always taken a stash of phone cards, SIM cards, or other communication technology to the ships when they visit, this practice is even more important now because seafarers are unable to go ashore to use the free WiFi offered at the Seafarers' Centre. Without this technology, there would be no affordable way for them to connect with family back home.

Service. Running errands for seafarers is now more important than ever. Like most of us, seafarers enjoy snacks and treats and they also use essential personal items. But they are unable to go ashore to purchase things for themselves, so they have been sending us shopping lists. Our chaplain does the running around for them and then makes a delivery to the ship. Here was his grocery list from a recent run: 54 bags of chips, 120 chocolate bars, toothpaste, deodorant, nutritional supplements, art supplies and video games.

Care. Visits to ships have changed from spending time having a cup of coffee with crew members and talking with them in person, to short visits by the gangways with everyone wearing masks. Conversations have moved to virtual means through messages and phone calls instead of in person. Despite these changes and challenges, ministry is still happening! 

Connection. Conversations between chaplains and seafarers also centre around the desperation that some seafarers feel at not being able to go home due to lockdowns and travel restrictions. After contracts of 6-9 months or more, seafarers need rest and time off. They are worried about their families more than ever. They have no idea how much longer they'll have to work. How can they pace themselves for a race if they don't know what distance they're running?

There are seafarers stuck at home too, unable to begin working again. They count on new contracts to earn income so they can support their families. They don't get paid while they are off work. They are asking for our prayers that they'll be able to join a ship soon.

Spiritual and Practical Support. We are responding in prayer and with practical changes too. In our app, we have added a link to ISWAN's SeafarerHelp line—a free, 24-hour, multilingual helpline for seafarers and their families—as well as to ICMA's Chat to a Chaplain tool so seafarers can chat in real-time with a chaplain at any time.

#GivingTuesdayNow is a global day of giving and unity. Long ago, seafarers set the example by working as mixed crews in difficult conditions all while giving us their very best. Thanks to them, we have everything that we need. It's time to give back and to let them know that we see them and we care that their freedom is a casualty of this pandemic. If you'd like to help us continue serving seafarers, please donate today.  
A thankful giving us an apple juice - This ship's order included a set up paints and canvases for the captain's daughter; skin lotion and laundry soap for a chief officer; and Mi Goreng noodles! A note of gratitude from a ship; Our chaplain helps a seafarer resolve an issue with a money transfer; A ship lowers a bucket so items can be passed up to the gangway; Our chaplain in port with protective gear
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