Health and Healthcare Systems

How to protect global supply chains under threat from the COVID-19 pandemic

An empty shipping dock is seen, as the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in the Port of Los Angeles, California, U.S., April 16, 2020.

An empty shipping dock in the Port of Los Angeles, April 2020 Image: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Sturla Henriksen
Special Advisor, Ocean, United Nations Global Compact
Martha Selwyn
Sustainable Ocean Business Action Platform, UN Global Compact
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  • National responses to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic are threatening the integrity of vital global supply chains.
  • The United Nations Global Compact is calling for a comprehensive, systemic and coordinated global approach.
  • A global 'key worker' status recognising essential ocean-based services would give these workers a right to transit and medical attention.

Almost 90% of global trade is transported by sea. At the same time, the offshore industry is a major component of global energy supply, while mariculture and capture fisheries constitute vitally important sources of food and animal feeds.

Our ocean’s wide-ranging supply chains are responsible for the continued flow of food, fuel, medical supplies, raw materials and agricultural products. These underpin national economies, job security, and the health and wellbeing of all people.

While epidemiological data and risk assessments show that COVID-19 measures continue to be necessary, closed borders, curtailed travel, quarantines and other restrictions are impeding on the movement of the goods and workers needed to keep these critical global supply chains moving.

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The urgency of the challenge

Shipping lies at the very core of the global logistical system. At any given time, 50,000 vessels and 1.2 million seafarers are in operation. National COVID-19 measures, local restrictions and reduced manpower capacity in ports are making it increasingly challenging for ships to dock, load and disembark.

As a result, a widespread ripple effect is being felt across all supply chains, including just-in-time food-related logistics services and other vital goods which, as Heike Deggim, Maritime Safety Director at the International Maritime Organisation points out, “will be central to responding to, and eventually overcoming, this pandemic”.

What’s more, travel restrictions and grounded airplanes are making the monthly changeover of 100,000 crew members on ships virtually impossible. Changeovers due in April have generally been postponed for a month. Although work cycles vary in the offshore sector, capture fisheries and coastal fish farming, similar problems lie around the corner.

While looming labour shortages in the fisheries industry pose a risk to important food supplies, it is proving almost impossible to get specialized personnel on board vessels and offshore energy platforms to undertake operations, maintenance and repair.

Classification bodies cannot renew certifications which ensure compliance with safety regulations. Delaying these inspections doesn’t just put personnel, property and vessels at risk, but also our environment.

The human element: stranded at sea

Ensuring the production and safe delivery of vital goods is a vast international ocean-based workforce. Restrictions on movement and a lack of medical attention is placing enormous strain on the physical and mental health of some 1.2 million seafarers.

While extended stints between six to 10 months at sea are exerting a psychological burden, there are increasing reports of seafarers being denied emergency medical attention ashore, due to COVID-19 restrictions.

COVID-19 protocols have been developed

Close on-board proximity and interpersonal contact between ship and shore are to name but a few of the countless health and safety challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, industry groups, such as the International Chamber of Shipping and the International Association of Ports and Harbours, and UN organisations like the World Health Organisation and the International Maritime Organisation, have already led an enormous effort to establish safety protocols for preventing and mitigating COVID-19 for vessels and ports.

These extensive measures cover all aspects from vessel hygiene to alternate on-board access routes. While stronger communication channels are still being developed to ensure their widespread adaptation, a lot of the hard work has already been done.

As Guy Platten, Secretary General of the International Chamber of Shipping, points out, “industry and civil society have stepped up, done the homework and developed protocols to deal with COVID-19”. It’s at the level of government where action falls short.

Global coordination and political cooperation are needed

A pandemic transcending national and administrative borders cannot be effectively dealt with bilaterally or between a limited number of countries. Our ever-more-interconnected world requires a comprehensive, systemic and coordinated approach at a global level.

The UN Global Compact is thus calling for a coalition of willing governments to champion the issue and raise awareness for the importance of protecting global ocean supply chains.

The next step should be to establish an emergency Ocean Supply Chain Task Force, consisting of governments, UN specialised agencies and industry associations, including airlines.

As Platten underlines, “the problem is simplistic, but the solution is complex”, requiring wide-ranging international coordination and cross-sectoral cooperation.

Adopting a global 'key worker' status

From seafarers and port workers to oil spill response teams, industrial personnel, truck drivers and fishermen – numerous occupations crucial to the safe and continued functioning of global supply chains rely on unhindered movement across both land and sea. These workers are currently restricted by closed borders and quarantine regulations.

Some governments, such as in the UK, have already designated workers in the transport, food and energy sector as critical. The European Commission has also identified several ocean-related services as essential to the COVID-19 response.

However, a global supply chain calls for a global solution. An internationally implemented 'key worker' status would give these workers the right to transit international borders and to medical attention ashore.

Such a status is not only important to ensure the safe delivery of vital supplies, but also to facilitate specialised personnel with access to offshore platforms and vessels approaching certification expiry.

While a cross-sectoral global approach is already underway to enable quick uniform exemption measures to immediate supply chain continuity, including by the International Association of Classification Societies, it is clear that the safest solution for people and planet is to ensure safety inspections can go ahead.

Call to immediate political action

“Governments must now work together to address the issue for the sake of over 1.2 million seafarers and to ensure the vital supplies that we all rely upon continue to be delivered,” Platten has said.

The Action Platform for Sustainable Ocean Business of the United Nations Global Compact today has released recommendations to keep global ocean-related supply chains moving efficiently and safely.

In addition to a 'key worker' status, we are calling on governments to identify airports for key personnel changeovers and to enable crew changes at ports in accordance with safety protocols.

Political action and global coordination is urgently needed to mitigate emerging threats to global supply chains, to ensure the functioning of the global economy for the health and well-being of all people.

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Related topics:
Health and Healthcare SystemsSupply Chains and TransportationGlobal Cooperation
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