As the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect daily life, the Apostleship of the Sea (AOS), a Catholic ministry for seafarers, has become a literal life preserver for the seafarers who are impacted by COVID-19.
According to Andy Middleton, director of the AOS in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, more than 400,000 seafarers have been stranded aboard ships beyond the length of their contracts because of border closures, lockdowns and ship lines’ restrictions during the pandemic.
“It’s understandable they are trying to limit exposure, but they need to find a balance where the ship can continue to operate while keeping in mind the welfare of the crew,” Middleton said.
Seafarers’ contracts are usually for four to 10 months, with international law stating that they cannot last longer than 11 months. Middleton recently encountered a seafarer who had been on board a ship for 15 months, unable to go home to his family.
Conversely, Middleton said there are land-bound seafarers, waiting to board ships. With many vessels unable to do crew changes, some seafarers have no way to provide for their families.
Middleton, who has had COVID-19 twice, and several volunteers regularly head to the Port of Baltimore to bring the crews religious items such as rosaries, scapulars and prayer cards, along with secular magazines, fiction books and puzzles – anything to pass the time.
If the visiting crew is allowed shore leave, AOS will transport them in a van to pick up essentials, all while requiring face coverings and following social distancing protocols. Most often, AOS collects shopping lists and money, and does their shopping for them.
Prior to COVID-19, the AOS did 12 to 20 transports each week. More than a year later, that is the total number of transports it has done since March 2020. Middleton sees some hope, because transports to the store have picked up slightly in recent weeks.
He said the biggest need for the seafarers is toiletries. With many people not traveling and accumulating hotel toiletries to donate, the AOS supply diminished. It is currently accepting travel-size and full-size shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste and floss.
Several Catholic organizations have banded together to advocate for the seafarers. The Coalition of Catholic Organizations Against Human Trafficking and the Apostleship of the Sea of the United States of America call their situation a humanitarian crisis and have several calls to action, including prayer, a petition at www.sistersagainsttrafficking.org and a letter-writing campaign.
“Their main concern is labor exploitation and the inability to change out the crew,” Middleton said.
The letter-writing campaign targets major retailers who depend on seafarers, as over 90 percent of consumer goods Americans use are moved by sea. The letters encourage signing the Neptune Declaration for Seafarer Wellbeing and Crew Change, to designate seafarers as essential workers to get priority for vaccines and be able to repatriate once their contracts end.
To donate items for the seafarers or receive a sample Neptune Declaration letter call Middleton at 443-845-7227 or email Andrew.Middleton@archbalt.org.
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