07/09/2021, 17.19
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Manila Port chaplain talks about seafarers' odyssey (VIDEO)

by Alessandra De Poli

The arrival of COVID-19 has slowed down sea trade, with thousands of Philippine seafarers paying a price. The latter constitute 27 per cent of the seafaring workforce worldwide. A couple of days before Sea Day, dedicated to the Apostleship of the Sea, Fr Paulo Prigol explains how sailors manage the adversities of this period.

Manila (AsiaNews) – Seafarers are among the workers most affected by COVID-19. In many cases, they have been quarantined on their ships while trade and commerce have come to a standstill.

The Catholic Church will turn its attention on them next Sunday, Sea Sunday (11 July), the annual event dedicated to the Apostleship of the Sea.

In the Philippines, the country that provides 27 per cent of all seafaring workers in the world, this is a major date in the calendar.

Fr Paulo Prigol, a Scalabrinian missionary from Brazil, has been at their service for the past 11 years as the chaplain and director of the Apostleship of the Sea Stella Maris in the Port of Manila.

The clergyman runs three Stella Maris facilities in the Philippine capital, providing support to sailors and their families, including food, accommodation, spiritual support and paralegal aid.

Until a few years ago, missionaries also visited ships and maritime schools. But a return to pre-COVID conditions is still far off.

“Before the pandemic, 300 people passed through our centres a day; now there are about a hundred,” Fr Prigol said.

“Over the last year, only two or three people leave on ships each day. This tells us what has happened around the world. Crew changes are no longer made.

“If previously, contracts provided that you could stay at sea for a maximum of nine months or a little more, now you have to agree to stay on board for up to 18-20 months.”

The Philippines is currently reporting five to six thousand new cases of COVID-19 per day. People have to submit to long quarantines or vaccination; however, vaccines are not yet available to everyone.

Pressure from families is added to all this since they rely on the salaries of seafarers. There is also social stigma, but that is slowly changing thanks to the work of the missionaries, Fr Prigol explained.

“Seafarers should be seen as heroes. About 90 per cent of the world's goods travel by sea. About 50,000 ships sail around the world and can never be stopped. But with COVID-19, people began to see them (the sailors) as carriers of the virus.”

For Sea Sunday, the missionaries made a video to thank seafarers and fishermen for their work.  “Without them we would not have the goods we need in everyday life,” Fr Prigol said.

Despite all the obstacles, the Philippine sailors with whom Fr Prigol interacts have not lost heart. They are helped by the Bayanihan spirit, a Tagalog word that refers to a sense of communal unity, of helping each other, of sharing among Filipinos.

“After 13 March 2020, the centres closed for 90 days to limit infections. We accepted about half of the people who are usually hosted and no one came in or went out

“I always eat bread and coffee, but the guys here prefer rice. Until now, I have never had to go out and buy a single sack of rice, because everyone here shares what they have. This is the Bayanihan spirit, and the resilience of the Filipinos is incredible.”

Still, the psychological pressure continues to mount and is now the primary concern of the missionaries. Once a week they hold a meeting to share, but sometimes it is not enough.

“A young man, after 12 days of quarantine in a 12 square metre room, asked me: 'Father, please, just give me a large room where I can breathe'.

“Another one contacted us via Facebook while he was stuck on a ship. He began to feel too much psychological pressure, and didn't know how to handle it.

“I have done a lot of online consultancies. For this man, the biggest problem was family pressure, asking him to extend the contract to send money home. But he was suffering in the tiny room on the ship.

“After several months he returned to the Philippines and I put him in contact with a professional psychologist. His story ended well, but although we don’t have any hard facts, the suicide rate in the Philippines is on the rise””

Despite the situation, Fr Prigol has faith. A bit like the sea, the Filipinos are a mystery that always manages to surprise you.

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