Joy Dimka, Legal Officer, Nigerian Shippers' Council.

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Covid-19 crisis calls for IMO health security regulations for ports and ships 19 Jun 2020


Diamond Princess cruise ship

The maritime sector plays a key role in global trade facilitation. Food, energy, raw materials, manufactured and intermediate goods, vital medical equipment, etc., are among many goods and services that are transported by ships. Data by United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) reveals that around 80 per cent of global trade is transported by commercial shipping. However, the shipping industry has not been spared by the devastating impact of the global disease outbreak in 2020, the like of which has not been seen in a century.
    
The operations of many seaports have significantly slowed down – in some cases, they have completely shut down as countries imposed travel and quarantine restrictions. With the slump in cross-border trade, many ships and seafarers have been in limbo for several months to reduce the social interaction of crews to curb the spread of coronavirus.
    
In addition to the human toll of Covid-19, coastal states and shipping companies are also counting their losses as the world enters the sixth month of the pandemic. Port authorities have been faced with many issues in the last several months. For instance, in cases where vessels are still berthing, how are they being attended to in terms of the safety of the crew? Will demurrage still be calculated in cases where vessels have exceeded their turnaround time because of the slowdown in port operations due to social distancing regulations?
    
These are some of the issues that integrating the control of the transmission of infectious diseases in international maritime laws can help to address. But having such a regulatory regime is a complex undertaking. It requires a collaboration between relevant organisations dealing with the spread of infectious diseases and maritime law. But no matter how difficult this task could be, there is no denying the fact that the maritime and shipping industry contributes to the global spread of infectious diseases.
    
It is, therefore, paramount for necessary efforts to be made across industry for the sake of protecting humankind against the ravages of infectious disease. Hence, this article aims to examine the relevance of maritime law as a tool for reducing the global spread of diseases.  
    
While the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines the jurisdictions of coastal or port states, the International Maritime Organization's (IMO) provides the frameworks by which national authorities can enforce and monitor compliance to safety and anti-pollution regulations by ships. To be sure, every country that operates a port facility has the right to enforce IMO regulations and any other domestic regulations for incoming vessels as the state may deem it necessary.
    
When it comes to the safety of ships, there are two IMO conventions in that regard, namely the Marine Pollution Convention 73/78 (MARPOL 73/78), and the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). But unfortunately, none of these laws directly addresses the structural deficiencies that may contribute to the spread of infectious diseases on both cruise ships and cargo ships. They also do not specifically advise on how ports can enhance health security in their operations.
    
Like other close-contact environments, ships are 'floating petri dishes.' They are ideal environments for transmission of respiratory viruses through exposure by travellers and seafarers to respiratory droplets or contact with contaminated surfaces. It becomes important to have effective procedures of engagement for safe operation of ships.
    
The Covid-19 outbreak has also shown how confined environments like it is the case on ships help the virus to spread. There have been reported cases of mass infection on cruise ships and naval ships. As of last month, at least 40 cruise ships had confirmed Covid-19 cases, including 712 cases on the British-registered Diamond Princess, which had 3,711 people on board. Several United States battle force ships have also been reported to have positive Covid-19 cases, including the aircraft carrier, Theodore Roosevelt. Over 900 of the ship's crew members had tested positive for the virus as of end of April.
    
There have been calls from various quarters for comprehensive health and safety regulations in the maritime industry. The Japanese government says it is funding a research to create international rules for infectious disease outbreaks on cruise ships. Due to the lack of legislation on how to quarantine ships that have an outbreak of an infectious disease, the Diamond Princess and other cruise ships with coronavirus cases were initially stranded as port states prevented many of the ships from docking.
    
Several other proposals have been provided for the IMO to reduce the risk of ships facilitating the transmission of diseases. This would require a close liaison between the IMO and the World Health Organization (WHO) – which are both UN specialised agencies. However, the IMO has not responded in this direction. A lot of maritime scholars are of the opinion that the IMO is not proactive in its safety regulations.
    
In the absence of a unified body of regulations centered on controlling the spread of infectious diseases on ships and other waterborne vessels, there are disparate regulations dealing with different aspects of health and safety in international transportation and trade. For instance, the WHO adopted the International Health Regulations (IHR 2005). According to Article 2 of the IHR 2005, the main purpose of these regulations is “to prevent, protect against, control and provide a public health response to the international spread of diseases in ways that are commensurate with and restricted to public health risks, and which avoid unnecessary, interference with international traffic and trade.”
    
Furthermore, there is the WHO Guide to Ship Sanitation, which is referenced in the IHR 2005. This has become the official global reference on health requirements for ship construction and operation. The purpose is to standardise the sanitary measures on ships, safeguard the health of travellers and crew members and prevent the spread of diseases from one country to another.
    
The Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN) is a partnership between WHO and a network of different institutions. Launched in 2000, it aims to coordinate responses to public health emergencies and prevent and control infectious disease outbreaks.
    
Realising the importance of minimising Covid-19 disruption to maritime trade and shipping activities, members of the Port Authorities Roundtable (PAR) – a multilateral platform consisting of leading port authorities across Asia, Middle East, Europe and the America – declared a commitment in April to keep their ports open. Without a global framework for health security in the maritime industry, the members of PAR devised their own safety measures to reduce the spread of the disease while they are in operation.  
    
In Nigeria, the Port Health Services, a unit of the Federal Ministry of Health, is mandated to strengthen health security in Nigeria by minimising health risks at airports, ports and ground crossings. This means they have their presence at the airports, seaports and road boarders where necessary. At the ports, they work hand-in-hand with the Nigerian Ports Authority (NPA) to inspect incoming vessels and seafarers. In most cases, vessels require the “port health pass” before they can begin operations (loading and unloading).

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, port operations have become a shadow of what they used to be before the pandemic. This is despite the fact that port operations have been listed as essential services by President Muhammadu Buhari during the lockdown ordered by the president. But the question remains whether the port health agency that is responsible for health security at the ports has the capacity and facilities required to ensure the safety of the ports.

Given the critical role of the maritime industry in global trade, the development of a legal framework that brings together all the coastal states to provide health security guidelines for port operations can no longer be delayed. Although members of the PAR did call on other coastal states to join their declaration, a global framework would be more effective than such a fragmented approach. The industry would be able to work more efficiently if countries are able to abide by one body of laws.