Global Shipping & Trade: Navigating the Perils of COVID-19

Victor Restis Contributes Commentary for Moving Past the Pandemic. Protecting Global Supply Chains Starts with Human Resources

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed significant weaknesses in the global supply chain and has reminded us of what keeps this massive system going strong, even in times like now. The strength that fuels our ships runs our docks, manages our warehouses, and delivers our supplies is human resources.

International shipping crew members operate under strict working regulations designed to ensure safety maintain fluid operations and keep the supply chain moving. COVID-19 placed a significant strain on the shipping industry’s ability to preserve these important safety protocols properly.

“There is no doubt whatsoever that because of COVID-19, the level of difficulty to carry out a simple crew member transaction has been multiplied by 100,” said Victor Restis, president, Enterprises Shipping & Trading S.A. “

To protect the safety of the millions of maritime workforce members, and to mitigate the fallout caused by COVID-19, the International Maritime Employers’ Council immediately called on all governments to ensure that seafarers are protected and that safety protocols were maintained, even strengthened.

New protocols included designating maritime workers as essential personnel, instituting provisions that allowed safe and expedient crew exchange and ensured general repatriations. Social distancing measures and workers being infected by COVID-19 a dire circumstance that restricted movement of workers through lockdown and stay-at-home orders. The domino effect caused ports to close and warehouses to shut down and constricted the delivery of products and supplies to areas needing them most.

The domino effect continues. COVID-19-inspired restrictions caused port congestion in some of the world’s most significant shipping connection points, creating levels of maximized concern. Big-box retailers and manufacturers are unable to retrieve cargo due to the closures of warehouses. Drayage routes have been limited as a reduced number of supplies dictates the number of trucks needed to transport goods. Because products are not moving from warehouses to market, new products arriving from international locations have nowhere to be stored, further clogging the supply chain.

“It is difficult to monitor all the different rules, in so many different countries when they change by the day.  Shipping, in general, is operating smoothly with the understanding of all stakeholders and the unity that all of us as human beings have shown under these difficult times,” added Restis.

Then there are the legal aspects to consider. What happens when companies can no longer guarantee shipments, or proper safety protocols to handle goods such as food, or other items that have a limited shelf-life. Some ports have taken the precaution to declare ‘force majeure’ to pre-empt claims and legal liability. The effects caused by the pandemic may be covered through this declaration, but these are not uniform and may not always be available.

How Technology Can Transform Global Shipping

Technology leads to progress, and the shipping industry has been utilizing the latest technologies as they become available. IoT and shipping automation is an ongoing constant since the birth of the internet, and new measures are being explored not only to secure supply chains but to reduce the shipping industry’s carbon footprint

“Since technology is something directly connected with time and the clock is ticking, the only solution that can immediately be implemented is slow steaming. This is a solution that can be processed and implemented so that it will fairly cover all parties involved. The majority of the Greek shipowners have already proposed the subject, and I believe that this proposal has to be evaluated seriously to save what can be saved,” said Restis.

The maintenance of ships has improved due to IoT, where mechanical components are monitored in real-time data while transmitting critical data to maintenance crews. Having this information further improves efficient operations and scheduled maintenance planning so that supply chain movements run smoothly and uninterrupted.

Though COVID-19 has accelerated the use of remote technologies, increasing the trend toward automation, it is unlikely that full automated technologies will be implemented in the commercial shipping industry anytime soon. Autonomous shipping is just not an idea the world is ready for, and seafarers are at no risk of going extinct due to automation.