There is plenty to learn from the coronavirus pandemic beyond its medical aspect. How individuals and nations have been responding to the crisis speaks volumes about 21st century politics, the global economic order and human nature in general. In the shipping world, COVID-19 has highlighted some basic truths which many have probably taken for granted.
Globalisation is a fragile concept.
The tide of nationalism and COVID-19 combined are eroding the concept of globalisation like a sandcastle. The words of French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in his 1944 Letter to an American ring true, particularly in the European Union: “Every nation is selfish and every nation considers its selfishness sacred”. (Read Coronavirus conundrum: Islands in a ‘globalised’ world)
The global supply chain can be easily disrupted or broken.
The maritime industry has been talking of supply chains as though they were beautiful symphonies. But as the coronavirus crisis has demonstrated, the music can be disrupted by external forces and individual players can play discordant notes. Does the orchestra have a conductor?
Mega cruise ships are ticking medical time bombs.
Even before COVID-19, cruise ships had been making occasional headlines because of the outbreak of diseases on board. These floating boxes carry thousands of passengers and crew — making them fertile ground for deadly germs. So much for the glamour of cruise vacations.
There is no international law applicable to ships trying to enter a port with infected passengers or crew members.
Some cruise ships with confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been forced to sail from one port to another until finally being allowed to dock. One can speak of them as ships in need of refuge, but the persons on board who are infected cannot be legally classified as refugees. Thus, the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees are not applicable. Neither is there any provision in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that prescribes how national authorities should act under such circumstances.
In the shipping world, not all are equal before the law, but all are equal before the virus.
Anyone could get infected regardless of age, race or social status. This offers little consolation to seafarers, who face many difficulties in these trying times (such as being stranded at sea or in a foreign port). However, the very thought that life is fragile could make them better appreciate the value of personal health and safety in general. For manning agents, the pandemic is as good a time as any to show that empathy and compassion can overcome greed.