A new phase of the pandemic: the hopes and troubles of international shipping

Published on: 17 February 2021
Category: About shipping

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the global economy hard and the shipping and trading sectors have not been exempted from the crisis. These past few months have been difficult, but the latest data tells us that even these dark times will not last forever.

Social distancing and all the other restrictions implemented by governments to try and contain the spread of the virus have undoubtedly caused a significant decrease in the logistic industry’s gross value, with Italy being among the most affected countries in Europe. The second and early third quarter of 2020, in particular, were the hardest time for everyone involved.

The fourth and last quarter, unlike the ones before, shows a new upwards trend that is making the people involved in the international shipping business cautiously optimistic: with pharmaceutical companies racing to provide new vaccines against COVID-19 and entire countries continuing their collective efforts to flatten the curve, the latest news hints at a long-awaited return to normal.

Even with the volume of goods exchanged internationally beginning to rise again after a worldwide drop the likes of which had not been seen since the great crisis of 2008, however, the causes for concern are not entirely over: while the shipping sector may be bouncing back from the worst days of the coronavirus crisis, the slow transition back to pre-COVID levels of activity is causing an unprecedented backlash.

The renewed upswing in the movement of cargo on international sea freight routes in the last quarter of 2020 has led to industry inefficiencies and congestions, which in turn mean an average delay for late vessels of almost five days. The factors to keep into account for an explanation of this phenomenon are complex and varied, from staff shortages to longer and more rigorous procedures to follow in order to comply with the new hygiene regimes, to the inevitable consequences of both Eastern and Western winter holidays on international shipping, which made themselves known even in this peculiar year of socially distanced, toned-down celebrations.

The greater demand for transportation services, coupled with a shortage of empty containers between China and Europe, has affected not only the average time of transportation, but also freight rates by rail, by air and by sea, which can be up to 200% higher than normal.

In conclusion, although significantly better than the data from earlier months, the numbers from the last quarter of 2020 are a signal of a long and complex transition to come, and while we welcome the increase in volume with cautious hope, it would be unrealistic to expect the sector to go back to a pre-pandemic state overnight.

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