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Coordinated action is needed for more resilient inland transport: UNECE tools can support ‎seamless freight during pandemics

Now is the time to make use of trade and transport facilitation standards and digital technologies, such as electronic exchange of information and paperless solutions. This is crucial to limit physical checks in transit and physical contact at borders and protect the health of workers.

Huge delays at borders during the COVID-19 pandemic made it increasingly difficult to keep transport and logistics chains up and running and restrictions to cross-border and transit freight transport aggrevated the economic and social impacts of the crisis.  According to WTO figures, the global economy is projected to contract by up to 8% and global trade will decrease by up to 32% in 2020.

While railway freight transportation suffered less, at least in the Euro-Asian region, the road freight transport sector was hit hard.  According to IRU data, revenue decreased by 40% during the confinement period compared to 2019 figures. Many transport operations including transport of automotive parts, clothing, flowers and construction materials came to a near complete standstill. The crisis also resulted in social impacts where professionals including truck drivers, customs and border officers often got stuck for days in a row at border clearance posts, exposed to possible COVID-19 contagion given the often precarious infrastructure and sanitary situations at many land border crossings.

To help countries cope with these challenges, the use of new and existing digital systems has gained momentum. This is most visible in the accelerated implementation of UNECE tools including the eTIR International System to ensure contactless and paperless border crossing operations, the use of eCMR to enable electronic tracking and tracing of goods and vehicles, as well as the automation of customs procedures and implementation of digital freight corridors.

However, the extreme vulnerability of international transport systems to outbreaks of communicable diseases has become very apparent. At the same time, in the post-COVID-19 era the world will remain highly interconnected and rely on seamless and efficient transport and logistics systems. A global initiative is therefore needed to enhance international cooperation and coordination among inland transport authorities, and in doing so strengthen the preparedness and resilience of countries to possible future outbreaks.

These were among the main issues discussed at the UNECE-led Informal Multidisciplinary Advisory Group Meeting on Transport Responses to COVID-19 organized on 9 June 2020, following the mandate received from the UNECE Inland Transport Committee at its 83rd Session earlier this year.

The virtual event gathered over 140 experts and officials from ministries of transport, economy, health, customs committees and other relevant agencies as well as road and railway transport operators, shipping companies and logistics providers from over 40 countries across the UNECE region. The event, which was also attended by the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization, offered a platform to take stock of the challenges experienced by the inland transport sector, discuss possible issues in re-opening of cross-border traffic and exchange views on possible recommendations to increase transport authorities` preparedness for and resilience to future outbreaks. 

Discussions highlighted a number of immediate COVID-19 crisis responses put in place by UNECE and others, including:

The meeting’s deliberations will feed into the preparations of a working document requested by the ITC for discussion in September 2020,  when Government delegates from across the UNECE region and beyond will be expected to discuss and endorse next steps in strengthening the resilience of the inland transport sector to pandemics and international emergency situations.