The traveling medical center serves hundreds of thousands in Brazil's riverside communities, and this care has never been more needed.
The Pope Francis Hospital Boat had to suspend its operations at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, because the river ports of the Amazon region were closed as a necessary measure to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. It’s now been about a month, however, since the traveling hospital returned to the waters of the Amazon River to serve the riverside communities of western Pará (Brazil). There, it delivers food baskets and hygiene kits to families who’ve become even more isolated because of the world health crisis.
Bishop Bernardo Bahlmann of the diocese of Óbidos, Pará, explains that the services were reactivated with the emergency assistance of doctors at the São Francisco University Hospital in Bragança Paulista, São Paulo:
“We started again because we realized that in the countryside, where the virus hasn’t yet arrived, there were many people with health problems because they couldn’t come to the cities. First, because it wasn’t allowed, so to speak; the advice was always to stay at home. Then, people began to have needs because there are people who are sick (diabetes, heart problems …); they were already without medicine and had less and less food. Based on that, we decided that the boat could resume its activities here in the municipality. All this was done in agreement with the government Health Surveillance and the Secretariat of Health. So the boat went to some locations here in the municipality of Óbidos itself and we found that, fortunately, the virus that causes COVID-19 wasn’t present.”
Donation from Pope Francis
In addition to healthcare, the families received basic food baskets and hygiene kits donated by Pope Francis. Bishop Bahlmann says, “Many are already suffering from hunger.”
Communities affected by the virus
When the hospital boat resumed its operations, the doctors and other healthcare workers weren’t working directly with people infected by COVID-19, but Bishop Bahlmann expects that this situation will change, since the boat will soon visit communities in Amazon territory where the coronavirus is circulating.
Although the border between the states of Pará and Amazonas is closed, it’s very difficult to control the clandestine circulation of people due to the countless number of rivers in the region. Many people depend on this mobility to shop and to get medical attention. Therefore, in the Amazon, guaranteeing the supply of basic needs for the population while protecting it from the virus is a persistent challenge. The main river route in the region, which is the Amazon River itself, includes cities among those most affected by the pandemic in Brazil—among them, Manaus and Belém, the capital cities of Amazonas and Pará.
In addition, there’s concern about the hospital boat visiting indigenous communities. Bishop Bahlmann mentions in particular the villages of the Tiryó Mission, over 300 miles north of the diocese of Óbidos, on the border with Suriname. Among the 1,300 indigenous people living in the Brazilina part of the community and the additional 1,000 living on the Surinamese side of the border, the virus is already spreading and there are several confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Hospital ship expeditions
Under normal circumstances, the Pope Francis Hospital Boat carries out 2 to 3 expeditions per month, each lasting 7 to 10 days. The boat, mainly equipped for basic health examinations, serves about a thousand riverside communities in 12 municipalities of Pará along the Amazon River. From August 2019 until the end of May 2020, the Pope Francis Hospital Boat has already provided 43,094 consultations, benefiting about 700,000 people who live on the banks of the largest river on planet Earth.