Commentary: Maintaining flow of goods essential during battle against COVID-19

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of FreightWaves or its affiliates.

The liner shipping industry, which operates container ships and vehicle carriers, has continued to move the cargo on which the world relies despite the pandemic. 

As governments, companies, individuals and institutions respond to the COVID-19 crisis, the first focus is and must be on protecting health and human life. Even as the crisis upends daily life, people continue to have basic needs for food, medicine and other supplies. And even as we all take steps to address the immediate situation, countries across the globe are preparing for recovery.

Both activities — meeting basic human needs and supporting global economic activity — depend heavily on international maritime supply chains, and those supply chains are dependent upon the movement of container ships and the cargo they carry. The range of items moved in containers is incredibly varied, from fresh and frozen food, agricultural products, clothes, medicines, and finished electronics to chemicals, paper and industrial supplies that support manufacturing around the world.

The front-line colleagues who keep the ships moving and delivering supplies to populations around the world are the seafarers who serve on the industry’s ships. In many cases these men and women have extended their contracts onboard to keep ships moving, making it possible to keep store shelves stocked and essential supplies moving.

Shipping companies know that seafarers are the backbone of international supply chains, and companies are working to keep seafarers safe and to find ways amid travel restrictions and quarantine requirements to plan for rotating ships’ crews as it becomes safe to do so.

Seafarers and the ships they guide across the oceans are essential to the delivery of critical consumer products and industrial goods; however, they do not deliver those goods by themselves. In order for cargo to get from its origin to the port and from the port onto the ship — and at the end of the sea voyage to be unloaded and moved to its ultimate destination — there are many essential professionals who form what we refer to as the supply chain.

That supply chain is made up of multiple businesses and individuals, each of whom has a hand in making sure the goods get where they are going. These people include warehouse workers, truck drivers, train operators, longshore workers, customs officers, documentation specialists and many more. These people are as critical as seafarers to keeping goods moving, and they must also continue to be recognized as “essential workers” and provided with the appropriate workplace protocols and supplies to allow them to continue to work as safely as possible.

One of the single most important things that national and local governments can do right now is to support policies that ensure that the flow of cargo through the world’s ports remains fluid. In many parts of the world, backups at warehouses, shortages of truck drivers and scheduled deliveries of goods that importers cannot sell are causing cargo owners to leave cargo at the ports. A delay or disruption in one part of the supply chain becomes a bottleneck and will trigger another delay or disruption elsewhere — ultimately affecting the movement of critical food and supplies.

The integrity of the international supply chain is dependent upon the continuous flow of goods. While the solutions to these problems are physically difficult and economically costly for everyone involved, the fact remains that if the ports become congested, then the entire system breaks down.

Shipping companies are offering solutions including extended transit times, storage in transit and other innovative approaches, but at the end of the day, everyone in the supply chain must remain focused on keeping cargo moving through the ports. This issue cannot become someone else’s problem. It is everyone’s problem and the pain and the solutions must be shared.

The world and every part of society are being tested in ways that we have not seen in many decades. The liner shipping industry is adapting and responding to the challenge and we are moving the world’s cargo. The difficulties are many and there have been and will be disruptions and delays. This is not business as usual.

What does not change is that each of us engaged in this collective maritime transportation enterprise must remain focused on two things: (1) protecting and supporting the people who keep goods moving and (2) keeping cargo moving through the world’s ports so that food, medicine and supplies can reach their destination.