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Short term pain, long term change

25 November 2020

A 'grim' outlook for world trade and fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic will cause major disruption for shipping and seafarers, according to a new Review of Maritime Transport issued by the United Nations. Andrew Linington reports

World maritime trade is set to plummet this year as a consequence of the Covid-19 crisis, a new United Nations report warns. It also predicts that the pandemic will have a long-lasting impact on the shipping industry and seafarers.

The annual UN Conference on Trade & Development (UNCTAD) Review of Maritime Transport says international maritime trade volumes are set to fall by 4.1% this year.

It warns that the short-term outlook for the shipping industry is 'grim', and that new waves of the pandemic could cause even more damage to supply chains and economies.

The 162-page report says the impact of coronavirus 'has underscored the global interdependency of nations and set in motion new trends that will reshape the maritime transport landscape'.

It proposes a range of policy measures to help the shipping industry deal with such challenges as changes in consumption and spending habits, shifts in globalisation patterns and supply chain systems, the low-carbon agenda, and the knock-on effects of growing protectionism.

The pandemic has brought visibility to seafarers with the recognition that they provide an essential service... they keep supply chains running

UNCTAD says the crisis has demonstrated the critical importance of shipping and the report backs calls to designate seafarers and other marine personnel as key workers and exempt them from travel restrictions.

'The pandemic has brought visibility to seafarers with the recognition that they provide an essential service because they ensure trade in essential goods, such as medical supplies and food, and they keep supply chains running. However, the slow pace of concrete actions highlights the challenges of balancing the safety and well-being of workers with operational continuity, which raises the question as to whether practices and procedures regarding crew changeover, disease management, health care and welfare need to evolve to enhance support for seafarers.'

Coronavirus serves as 'a litmus test, not only for globalisation but for global solidarity and collaboration as well', the report adds, and the scale, complexity and urgency of the maritime issues arising from the current crisis 'calls for a comprehensive and coordinated approach' at the global level.

'Special consideration is needed to address seafarers' concerns, most of whom come from developing countries,' it stresses.

'Collaboration across port states and among different actors within countries remains key to improving crew changeover processes and ensuring standardised procedure and risk management protocols.'

The disruptions caused by the pandemic could trigger deep shifts in the overall operating landscape for shipping and the industry will need to brace itself for change.

The uptake of technology may accelerate, and automation will have a varied impact on the global maritime workforce over the next 20 years, depending on demographic groups and the skills and tasks performed.

While high-skilled personnel, such as ship masters and officers, will be less vulnerable, UNCTAD says reskilling and retraining will be crucial in helping seafarers handle advanced technologies and automation.

However, most countries have not elaborated long-term plans for automation in the maritime sector.

Predicting the timing and scale of the shipping industry's recovery is fraught with uncertainty, but there are signs that global maritime trade could grow by as much as 4.8% next year.


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