NO SHIPPING… NO SHOPPING “Without maritime transport … there is no trade”
Capt. Antonio M. Padrón – Santiago, IMO Maritime Goodwill Ambassador Technical Advisor for Safety and Environment GENERAL DIRECTORATE OF THE MERCHANT NAVY Spain
Maritime transport is going through unprecedented times, never before experienced and generating great uncertainty about its future.
The consequences of the crisis generated by COVID-19 have not left maritime transport untouched. Furthermore, it has turned out to be one of the most widely affected sectors, with serious and, in many cases, unpredictable effects on many parts of the industry.
Suspension of cruises and shutdown of cruise lines, lay ups of a significant number of ships in the offshore sector, congestion of ports and especially container terminals, the exorbitant rise in the cost of transport by sea, which has already led to increases of 500% in some cases compared to before prepandemic. Added to this is the impossibility to carry out crew changes at the same time that there is already a serious shortage of seafarers in the near future … the outlook is discouraging!
Thus, for months the world fleet of cruise ships has been forced to suspend operations, forcing companies to establish demanding measures and protocols to avoid infection on board, although, obviously, “zero risk” will not exist until the professionals gain more experience with the virus, its capacity to be more harmful and/or infectious variants emerge, as well as the potential protection of vaccines.
Although attempts have already been made to adapt to the “new reality”, it is no less true that some infections have already been detected that have affected this type of ships, creating the need to establish quarantines and “lock up” passengers in their cabins when the virus is detected on board.
All this is aggravated by the fact that the origin of the crew of cruise ships covers practically the entire globe and therefore different levels of protection/vaccination, undoubtedly increasing the risk.
On the other hand, since the fall in oil prices in 2014/2015, and now, as part of the consequences of the crisis generated by COVID, the offshore sector (oil & gas) has been very seriously affected with fleets stopped from support and supply vessels to platforms, bankrupting some of the, -until now-, largest and most important companies of the sector in the world.
The extraction of oil and/or gas from the seabed, turns out to be one of the most expensive means to obtain these raw materials. Without a doubt, therefore, this highly specialized sector is suffering a serious setback that will force the restructuring of the assets -including ships and platforms- for which, in addition to the fleet shutdowns already experienced, suspensions of contracts have already been announced for future offshore units such as platforms and/or FPSOs in addition to the imminent scrapping to which a large number of auxiliary vessels will be subjected as they become obsolete and “out of work”.
On the other hand, a large number of ports and container terminals, especially on both sides of the Pacific, are suffering “unprecedented” congestion due to the slowdown in the delivery/reception of goods at destination. These in turn have been caused by the uncertainty generated by COVID, especially a notable lack of empty containers to allow Asian producers to continue exporting.
To make matters worse, the EVER GIVEN incident in the Suez Canal has exacerbated the situation by creating a world-wide interruption to world trade.
One of the unexpected consequences has been container shipping costs skyrocketing to reach levels that are five times pre-COVID rates and inevitably, the export industry -wherever it may be- is suffering a serious lack of orders. Consequently, production interruption creates hold ups at destinations due to imports of materials, equipment and components that “never arrive” or that are affected by prices that are impossible to pass on to the final consumers.
Finally, there are two more aspects which are seriously affecting maritime transport. On the one hand, the impossibility to carry out changes of seafarers’ due to the obstructions by some countries and/or companies them as a precaution against COVID. This has resulted in hundreds of thousands of professionals (seafarers) being literally locked up in their ships without having been able to have their statutory rest periods. This is a basic human right and is in contravention of the international conventions that regulate these matters. No other sector of society suffers in this way.
In addition to the harmful welfare effects that this lack of rest can cause for seafarers, it is prompting many to seek alternative forms of employment.
With this, the imminent lack of seafarers predicted by the recent BIMCO/ICS report will be aggravated by the search for new horizons by professionals who can no longer bear the pressure of uncertainty and abandonment to which they are being subjected.
As proof of all this, there are already cases of significant wage increases to try to “convince” the seafarers to remain in their jobs while awaiting the consequences of the “new reality”.
After the storm … the calm will come
According to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), around 80% of global freight transport is carried out by sea.
Likewise, it should be noted that the world population currently exceeds 7,000 million people and it is expected that, in a couple of decades, it will be around 10,000 and, therefore, if we want to feed and cloth e and -in short- to facilitate the well being to the greatest number of people possible, we need trade and maritime transport to be sustained. Not surprisingly, maritime transport – despite all the preceding crises – turns out to be practically one of the few human activities with global coverage and in continuous growth.
Thus, it should be noted that, during the crisis generated by COVID and, despite the problems and uncertainties outlined above, to date there has been no shortage of basic products and/or basic necessities, which has been due in largely thanks to the uninterrupted operation of the transport system that, starting with land transport (road and rail), passing through ports and terminals as well as the international fleet, have known and been able to respond to emerging needs.
And finally, it must be recognized that, if the numerous and necessary movements of people globally have been able to influence the spread of the virus, there is no doubt that transport will also be part of the solution by facilitating the necessary and rapid distribution of vaccines and/or medications so that this terrible nightmare ends soon and with a happy ending.
Thanks to all the transport workers and, especially, to the “seafarers” for their dedication, perseverance, effort and sacrifice in moments so difficult for humanity… there is no doubt that you are ESSENTIAL PROFESSIONALS