Maritime transport is essential to maintaining global supply chains and international trade. The COVID-19 pandemic brought on a rapid decline in seaborne trade, with preliminary projections by UNCTAD indicating a 4.1% contraction in international maritime trade and a forecasted 2.1%  drop in global container port throughput in 2020 (DREWRY Maritime Research, Container Forecaster, Q4 2020). 

Ports recorded cancellation of sailing operations by about 20% in Beirut and Visakhapatnam, 25% in Manila and Odessa, and 40% or more in Marseille and Genoa (UNCTAD, ITF).  The pandemic prompted container carriers to cancel voyages due to demand reduction, with roughly 20% to 30% of container ship capacity along main trade lanes idled from February to June 2020. (ITF)  Maritime passenger transport was even more heavily impacted, with many countries imposing restrictions and travel activity declining an estimated 60-80% in 2020. (New Climate Institute/ Climate Analytics)   


Operational Responses  

Operational responses to the pandemic - which include operational and financial/economic adjustments; sanitary protocols and processes; and adjustments to working practices and organizational aspects - have been critical to maintaining the maritime supply chain.  Such responses include efforts to facilitate crew change; designation of seafarers and dockers as key workers; and safety protocols in ports (ITF).  Among responses implemented in lower-middle income countries (LMICs), the East Africa Northern Corridor Transit and Transport Coordination Authority initiated an online platform for various stakeholders to discuss trade facilitation issues (UNCTAD).  The Port Community System of India digitalised trade-related processes to increase operational efficiency and reduce close contact among personnel.  A number of Asia-Pacific countries modified operations to expedite clearance of medical supplies and other essential goods, and ports in the region prioritised cargo ports over cruise ports, streamlining operations to allow direct transfer of goods from vessels to manufacturers (UNCTAD-UNESCAP).  The pandemic has also shown the capacity of container lines to jointly withdraw capacity in response to or in anticipation of demand shocks (ITF). 


Policy Responses  

In addition to operational, organisational and financial/economic responses, many governments have implemented support measures for shipping, including changes in the terms of export credits.  A preliminary inventory by the International Transport Forum (ITF) reveals that at least 13 countries have provided support for shipping in recent months.  More than half of known aid packages include support for ferry and cruise shipping companies, especially in countries where ferries are essential for national or international connectivity (e.g. Estonia, Finland, Greece, Italy, Sweden, United Kingdom). However, the majority of shipping support measures include no economic, social or environmental conditions (as observed for many government bailouts in the aviation sector). (ITF) Further, the World Food Programme activated a pandemic response team to collect data on the impact on shipping and to share information among Asia-Pacific small island developing States (UNCTAD). 


Planning for the future  

Additional risk assessment and harmonised disaster response planning are required to increase the resilience of maritime transport to future pandemics and other global shocks. For example, East Africa member states have proposed to share early-warning intelligence, pursue capacity-building activities, and embed responses into national and regional transport and trade policies.  There is also a heightened need for small island developing States (notably in the Asia-Pacific region) to increase risk mitigation capabilities and enhance green shipping solutions at national, regional and global scales. (UNCTAD

Maritime transport can also play a role in reducing risk of future pandemics, by scrutinising cargo to halt trafficking in illegal wildlife and forestry, which leads to biodiversity loss and propagation of pathogens (TPM). 


The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the United Nations regional commissions have leveraged extensive maritime transport datasets and knowledge of developing countries’ conditions to assess immediate impacts of the pandemic on the maritime transport sector. The aim is to increase understanding of impacts and identify good practices in maritime supply chain resilience-building, and to enable adequate policy responses, including at the regional level (UNCTAD).  Joint efforts among countries and international organizations can help to facilitate trade, safeguard supply chains, and achieve green and equitable recovery in a post-pandemic landscape (IMO, et al). 


This section was developed by SLOCAT Partnership on Sustainable, Low Carbon Transport with contribution from United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCATD), and International Transport Forum (ITF)