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Sea Sunday: Response of seafarers to pandemic in India

As Sea Sunday is observed this 11 July, Martin Foley with Stella Maris UK looks at how seafarers have been responding to the Covid-19 outbreak in India, along with the impact of social media on crews aboard ships far from home.

By Lydia O’Kane

Over the last few months, India has endured a devastating second wave of Covid-19 infections, leaving many hospitals suffering from oxygen shortages and unable to cope.

As the world marks Sea Sunday on 11 July, the Catholic global seafarers charity Stella Maris is helping more than 1,000 Indian families affected by the pandemic.

Through a major grant, the charity has been able to purchase 10 oxygenators, which will help save lives amid the spread of the virus.

In addition, Stella Maris port chaplains and volunteers are providing 1,100 food parcels for families affected by Covid-19. Funding will also be provided for post Covid-19 care, counselling and therapy.

Vital support

Speaking to Vatican News, the Chief Executive Officer of Stella Maris UK, Martin Foley, said seafarers have been doing vital work in India.

“A large proportion of the world’s seafarers do come from India," he said. "There’s a strong maritime tradition, particularly southern India, in Kerala where there’s also a strong Catholic tradition, and seafarers have been absolutely pivotal to the provision of critical medical equipment to Indian hospitals, including oxygenators, but also PPE and other critical medical supplies. So, we owe a great debt of gratitude to seafarers for the pivotal role they have played insuring that medical supplies are maintained in hospitals in India and indeed elsewhere in the world.”

He went onto say that the food parcels Stella Maris, along with partners in the shipping industry, have been providing to the families of seafarers and fishers in India are vital at this time.

“Many of these families will have been caught up in the whole Covid pandemic; their loved ones might have been unable to go to work or have had their contracts terminated due to the pandemic," he said.

Listen to the full interview

Lonely time

Being out at sea for months on end and away from loved ones can be a lonely existence; added to that is the Coronavirus pandemic, which Mr Foley emphasized, has compounded the loneliness that many seafarers face.

“They have, in many ports, been unable to leave their ships due to local Covid restrictions, and that’s made it all the more important that the Stella Maris chaplains and ship visitors reach out to seafarers digitally through social media, but also where circumstances permit, we are able to talk and chat to the seafarers at the bottom of gangways.”

He added that Stella Maris has had to be very creative in the way they respond to seafarers.

Social media response

Over the past year since the start of the pandemic, there has been a seismic shift in the way people communicate, from social media, to online Masses, and webinars.

Asked if he has been satisfied with this digital approach to communicating with seafarers and fishers, Mr Foley said there has been a “certain sense of satisfaction that seafarers like the rest of us, want to connect with people, with news, with information, with their faith and if that’s not possible physically, then through social media, then that is a viable option." 

Although seafarers have welcomed this new form of contact over the past year, the Stella Maris CEO was keen to stress that nothing can replace that “one to one interaction in a mess room on board a ship.”

Celebrating Sea Sunday

Sea Sunday, which is marked every year on the second Sunday of July, highlights the vital role seafarers and fishers play in people’s lives. It also offers an opportunity to pray for them as they embark on journeys aboard their ships far from home.

“Sea Sunday is always a wonderful opportunity to pray for seafarers, to express our thanks to seafarers; for all they do for us, and for the sacrifices they and their families make to ensure that we have food on the table,” said Martin Foley.

“But this year in particular because of the pandemic,” he added, “I think it’s really important that we recognize that seafarers are key workers, and that wherever possible we apply pressure on our government, on our elected representatives to ensure that seafarers are treated in a human fashion when they come into ports.”

“Seafarers are key workers and they deserve to be treated as such.”

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10 July 2021, 09:30