21 months living with COVID-19 and the global shipping community, as well as the global supply chain, is still in crisis. On one hand, container shipping experiences unforeseen delays, while on the other hand, seafarers remain stranded, working with extended contracts due to the difficulties of crew changes. And what is worse; it seems that a return to normal is not on the cards just yet…
Namely, according to the UNCTAD Review of Maritime Transport 2020, the COVID pandemic has shocked supply chains, shipping networks and ports, leading to plunging cargo volumes, hindering growth prospects, further predicting that the industry’s recovery is filled with uncertainty. In fact, empty boxes remain scattered across the world, while supply chain delays make it even more difficult to fulfill orders. Meanwhile, the demand for goods skyrockets, giving the network of ships, containers and trucks very little time to catch up.
As a result, CNN informs, containers have become incredibly scarce and thus, very expensive. In fact, last year, companies would pay roughly $1,920 to book a 40-foot container on a standard route between China and Europe, while now, they are spending more than $14,000, accounting to an increase of more than 600%! One tricky point is that a lot of the cargo going from Europe back to Asia is low-value materials, such as wastepaper and scrap metal, and as shipping prices have gone up, those voyages aren’t really worthwhile anymore, leaving boxes stranded in turn. Adding to the problem, containers in circulation are currently getting held up for extended periods of time, meaning that more boxes are needed in order to carry out shipments and avoid getting even further behind schedule.
What is more, companies that make containers, which are largely based in China, have had to cope with rising raw material costs. Indeed, the special type of steel that shipping crates are made from, has gotten significantly more expensive, as have flooring materials like plywood and bamboo; the cost of paying workers has gone up too. Experts aren’t sure when things will get easier, but it seems that the situation isn’t going to be resolved any time soon, according to CNN. The Chinese New Year in February 2022 can potentially help with an ease on exports, however, given how backed up the system already is, and how much people are still purchasing, the problem remains.
Besides, according to Bloomberg, with the new delta strain, the situation seems to be getting even worse, as demand for products doesn’t slow down while crew changes aren’t happening fast enough, and governments continue to turn a blind eye. All such signs point to a worsening crisis at sea, just as the industry seemed to be emerging from months of port restrictions that hurt the ability of crew changes and left hundreds of thousands stranded at sea for months.
It is thus now that there is an urgent need to eliminate the risk off container ships. In particular, if the risk to seafarers isn’t eliminated, then further port shutdowns or outbreaks on ships taking them out of services will make it even harder and more expensive to keep the supply chain going even further (ahead of the festive season as well). “We will run out of the available crew,” said the Columbia Shipmanagement CEO, Mark O’Neil, “they would either have COVID, or they will be part of a COVID-infected crew, or they will not be vaccinated and therefore will not be allowed into a port. The number of vessels operating will be reduced.”
If anything, the pandemic has highlighted just how important seafarers are, and just how difficult a job they have, as they have had to overcome tremendous challenges over the past months to keep shipping and supply chains in operation. Evidently, it is seafarers, the industry’s key asset, that fulfill a very important role for society, keeping vital logistic arteries open when they have been needed the most; yet, at the same time it seems that they have been largely overlooked in this respect.
“We are witnessing a humanitarian crisis at sea. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, seafarers have kept the world supplied with food, energy and other vital goods, with no line of sight of when to go home to their families. They have become hostage of the situation and unable to disembark from their ships. Yet, we can put an end to the crew change crisis without any risk to the general public health” had stated Jeremy Nixon, CEO of ONE.
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