By Courtney Mares
A hospital boat named after Pope Francis has been delivering medical aid along the Amazon River as rural communities struggle amid Brazil’s devastating coronavirus outbreak.
“This vessel has already done great miracles in the lives of our riverside people, bringing health and hope,” Franciscan Brother Joel Sousa told the Brazilian bishops’ conference news portal.
Since the boat was inaugurated in July 2019, the medical crew has carried out 46,000 medical consultations in the communities along the Amazon River. However, in the face of Brazil’s coronavirus outbreak, the crew has shifted its focus to prevention and testing.
“We couldn’t be out of this fight. We got together, reorganized ourselves in our service so that together we could also fight against COVID-19,” Sousa said.
The coronavirus pandemic has hit Brazil hard. With nearly 1.9 million COVID-19 cases, Brazil has the second highest number of recorded pandemic fatalities in the world after the United States.
At least 72,833 people have died of COVID-19 in Brazil as of July 14, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro announced July 7 that he had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Vatican News reported July 14 that Pope Francis has donated four ventilators to Brazil to treat those who have contracted the virus. One of them, sent to a hospital in Marabá, a municipality in the state of Pará, will be “used especially for the Indigenous peoples,” according to the local bishop.
Despite their isolation, communities along the Amazon River have not been shielded from the outbreak. The virus has spread after two cities along the mouth of the river, Belem and Macapa, experienced outbreaks in the spring.
“We are mainly treating flu-like symptoms and mild, outpatient COVID-19 symptoms. The doctor performs the consultations and we also deliver medicines to the local health department,” Sousa said.
The hospital boat is staffed by medical volunteers, crew members, and Franciscan friars. It was founded by the Fraternity of St. Francis of Assisi in the Providence of God, in partnership with their local diocese and the Brazilian government.
The Brazilian Franciscans were inspired to create the floating hospital when Pope Francis visited their healthcare facility during World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro in 2013. During the visit, the pope encouraged Friar Francisco Belotti to expand his religious order’s charitable works into the Amazon region.
The boat, 105 feet in length, contains an operating room and analysis laboratory, and is able to provide a range of medical services, including X-rays, vaccinations, electrocardiogram, mammograms, and ultrasounds. The hospital began treating its first patients Aug. 18.
In a letter marking the boat’s launch on Aug. 17, Pope Francis, who has often spoken of the Church as a “field hospital,” said that the Church can also now be seen as a “hospital on the water.”
“Just as Jesus, who appeared walking on water, calmed the storm and strengthened the faith of the disciples, this boat will bring spiritual comfort and calm to the worries of needy men and women, abandoned to their fate,” Pope Francis said.
This report has been updated to include the pope’s donation of four ventilators to hospitals in Brazil.