Curtailing the Africa Mercy’s assignment in Senegal was a difficult decision.
Captain Taylor Perez said the experience of leaving and going into quarantine in Tenerife brought practical and emotional problems for the crew and medics, particularly those from Africa.
“For me, it started with an obvious concern for the crew,” Perez told TradeWinds, “but the level of concern was similar to having a bad flu outbreak on the ship.” (In January, it had dealt with a virus-borne illness, successfully isolating those with symptoms.)
But he added: “The concern increased dramatically as we learned more about Covid-19.
We had highly respected anaesthesiologists and publichealth doctors on board who raised the bar on our response quickly.
“My concern was for the safety and emotional health of the crew — to allay fear and anxiety by being transparent with news and plans for the safety of the patients and crew.
“We were fully supported by management ashore, so it was challenging but rewarding to navigate through the whole process, to be up front and bring clarity, and consequently calmness to the situation.”
Perez’s Christian faith helped him find the words and attitude needed to get the ship through the emotional challenges of having to end surgeries and leave well before its expected departure time.
Captain Taylor Perez: “Patients who had become friends and were loved were having to be told their surgeries would not happen as scheduled”
For many of the technical crew, most of whom are from multiple African nations, there was confusion as to why the ship was leaving, and concern about their futures.
The decision to leave the field was based on the concerns of medical staff. They feared they would not be able to take care of anyone who got sick on board, because the Senegalese authorities said anyone who tested positive for coronavirus would have to be treated in a local hospital.
“We would not be in a position to help, but would reduce the capacity of the Senegalese health system to take care of their own people,” Perez explained.
“There was a great sadness in having to disconnect from the about 250 day crew, people hired from the Senegalese population to help in various technical, operational and medical jobs, including supporting programmes ashore.” And it was “devastating” for the medical staff: “There were still patients waiting for surgery. Patients who had become friends and were loved were having to be told their surgeries would not happen as scheduled. It was hardest for the medical staff.”
Mercy Ships had to reduce crew numbers to mitigate the risk of possible Covid-19 infections on the ship.
Crew experienced the industry wide problems of struggling with airports and borders shutting down, limiting how many could return to their homes or to hospitals and medical facilities in their own countries that needed their skills urgently.
Backfilling the jobs of departed crew and having a guaranteed port of refuge to go to were additional problems. “We needed a location with a healthy enough medical infrastructure to potentially handle any crew whomight get sick.”
But Perez said benefits included witnessing the inspirational love between the patients and day crew and the ship’s volunteer medics and seafarers.
“When we isolated, 57 day crew volunteered to isolate with us in order to help staff the positions crew had vacated when they were repatriated, and to continue to translate and help the patients that remained on board and at the shore-side facility.”
He also commended the positive attitude and adaptability of the remaining crew, mostly medical, to take on jobs that they had not signed up for.
“My job did not slow down. There was still a ship to run, reports to make and problems to solve. But what was nice was that, with more work to do than people to do it, I got a chance to drop into different roles and help, such as barista in the cafe, dining room cleaner, dishwasher and trash
Perez, who is American, said the most amazing aspect of the quarantine period was the feeling of being a giant family. “For the most part, we don’t have the option of social distancing in our floating home.
Someone is always coming up with a new distracting activity for the evenings or weekends. “We have had ‘Pandemic Olympics’, ping-pong tournaments, karaoke nights, escape rooms. It has been delightful to be quarantined on a ship with people you like.”
Perez said Mercy Ships has always maintained strict anticontagion protocols, but will implement additional screening and quarantine measures when the Africa Mercy returns to operation.
“It is hard to predict how people will respond to a post Covid-19 world in terms of their willingness to volunteer in Africa. However, I am always amazed at the sacrifices people are willing to make and their generosity of spirit towards the forgotten poor.”
June 26th, 2020 by Paul Berrill