2021, April 2: COVID-19 IS NOT THE WORLD’S FIRST PANDEMIC and certainly not the deadliest. It is, however, the most widespread and disruptive the world has ever seen. The reason is simple: a global economy is a great battlefield for pandemics.

According to the 2020 UNCTAD Review of Maritime Transport, COVID-19 will have a lasting effect on world trade patterns and supply chains. The Economic Commission of Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) notes that the Caribbean is hard hit, given its dependence on overseas tourism and maritime trade. Portside Caribbean investigates the human and economic impact of this pandemic on Caribbean ports and the shipping industry and the lasting impact on the regional maritime trade and tourism systems.

Caribbean ports are part of a regional logistical system for cargo distribution and for international maritime travel and tourism. Therefore, to understand the true impact of COVID-19 on Caribbean life and development, we need to look at its impact on the entire region, more so than on individual state ports.

Each port has its own story to tell. And these collectively can give us broader (and deeper) insight into how the pandemic has affected those working in regional ports and on the ships sailing in the region.

The IAPH or International Association of Ports and Harbors’ COVID-19 Barometer provided an indication of what was happening in the region. The general picture was that most ports were fully operational for cargo but closed to cruise passenger operations. Most ports reported that cargo services were operational 24/7, and that they were providing a safe working environment for shore personnel. Contracted staff mostly remained on the payroll. Many ports were using staff flexibly as needed in the organisation, or in community outreach programmes.

Only essential operational staff was present at container terminals. Several countries allowed crew changes and ship-related operations in their ports and waters. Port management and office staff worked from home and visited the office on scheduled days only for essential work on location. This required investments in digital infrastructure and online security. Many ports had at least some of the basic requirements for this already in place.

Cargo operations

The Caribbean, classified under South and Central America in the IAPH study, follows world trends for most cargo trades. In September 2020, 34% of ports reported more than a 5% decline in cargo vessel calls. The initial decline in vessel calls before the summer seemed to have reversed, and cargo operations began resuming to normal levels in many trade lanes on the world level. IAPH did notice an imbalance in a relatively high share of empty containers, as liners were restructuring and markets in the EU and US were restocking. However, over 60% of ports reported a normal level of calls.

Panama Canal transits declined by less than 1% (0.3% actually) in 2020, while cargo throughput (long tons) showed a 1.1% increase. This was due mainly to strong growth in the first quarter and a pickup in the last quarter of 2020.

The impression is that the pandemic has had only an indirect effect on international container trade in the Caribbean as end-consumer markets react to the pandemic. The liner structure and number of vessel calls remained relatively stable. Local ports could and did receive vessels. But local cargo throughputs declined because of the local recession and the absence of tourists.

Cruise operations

Most Caribbean cruise ports experienced a 60% (or more) decline in cruise calls in 2020.  Cruise ports staff continued to work on maintenance, improvement projects, and development and documentation of protocols in preparation for the return of cruise passengers.

Initially, most cruise vessels stayed in USA/The Bahamas/Mexico waters.

After Europe and Asia eased some of their restrictions on passenger vessels during the summer, ships moved there. Carnival cruise sources informed that currently 14 Carnival-owned vessels were in The Bahamas, two were elsewhere in the Caribbean, and 80 ships were in Mexico/US waters, or otherwise in Europe and Asia.

On average, about 130 crew remained on board each of these vessels.

The Bahamas, Barbados, Aruba and Curaçao are popular lay-up and crew-change ports in the Caribbean. Some cruise lines returned to operation in Europe and Asia. In the USA, which accounts for over 80% of Caribbean cruise business, the national public health institute Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) launched a “phased approach to return to normal”.

An initial Conditional Sail Order focused on developing on-board laboratory testing for crew. This allows the cruise line to constantly monitor crew onboard and those returning to the ship. Similar monitoring programmes are also developed for passengers.

Future orders and technical instructions from the CDC were expected to address additional activities to help cruise lines prepare for and return to passenger operations in a manner that mitigates COVID-19 risks. This included simulated voyages, certification for conditional sailing, and restricted voyages.

The next phase of technical instructions (Technical Instructions for Port and Local Health Authorities Agreements) was expected to be released shortly. According to Royal Caribbean, the CDC had indicated that it would start allowing restricted voyages with volunteers as cruise passengers. Despite these positive announcements, most Caribbean port managers and ship agents did not expect a “return to normal”, until after next winter, 2021/22.

Seafarers and the pandemic

The International Labour Organization (ILO), in an observation published in December 2020, estimated that 400,000 crew personnel were still stranded onboard vessels worldwide, 10 months into the pandemic, while a similar number were waiting unemployed at home, unable to replace them. ILO urged member states to “designate seafarers as key workers and allow them access to shore and to local medical treatment”.

Thousands of claims reached the International Transport Federation (ITF) of seafarers unable to return home and no longer receiving pay and medical attention. The protection of the Seafarer Employment Agreement (SEA) is not always renewed when the original contract expires. The industry, the ITF concluded, had been unable to protect the rights and welfare of seafarers during the pandemic. The protection of seafarers’ MLC rights is arranged in the SEA and this can be checked during port state inspections. Crew can make complaints to port state officers, if there is no shipboard response to their complaints. As most port state regimes have relaxed inspections, fewer port state officers actually board the ships to check the crew situation. This issue needs to be addressed at the regional level.

Yachts and marinas

The Caribbean is a popular yachting destination. After the pandemic was declared, many yacht owners and captains tried to seek transportation or shelter, and repatriation for crew and passengers. Accessible hurricane shelters with proper healthcare facilities; clear border control regulations; and accessible airlift to overseas airports were used to lay up yachts and move crew and passengers to their final destinations.

The question, as we peered into the immediate post-pandemic period was: what happens when the vaccination programmes roll out? Will yachts return after the 2021 hurricane season? The World Health Organization cautioned that although vaccines help to fight this coronavirus, it was still too early to conclude that treated persons could safely travel without restrictions. Travel restrictions were therefore kept in place even as we ended the second month of 2021 and entered the second year of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created many “new normals” even before it had been brought under control. The pandemic did and continues to impact those who work in (or for) the maritime industry, directly and indirectly. As the world entered year two of this global tragedy, government-imposed travel bans remained in effect. Markets initially disrupted carefully reopened. While it is still too early to tell, health and safety protocols, remote meetings, and working from home could well become permanent features in most ports.

The Caribbean was hit hard by the “no sail” regulations for cruise ships and by the travel restrictions put on the yachting industry. And, as the region entered the second year of this pandemic, the big question was: when – and how – will cruising and yachting resume?

Among the victims of the pandemic are the seafarers – particularly those still stranded on vessels after 11 months without legal protection, proper pay, or medical treatment.

It is in the interest of world trade and shipping, that this issue be resolved ASAP. []

  •   Jan Sierhuis is a Caribbean maritime professional and former Chairman of the Caribbean Shipping Association’s Cruise Committee.