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COVID-19 impact on global maritime mobility

COVID-19 impact on global maritime mobility
Leonardo M. Millefiori, Paolo Braca, Dimitris Zissis, Giannis Spiliopoulos, Stefano Marano, Peter K. Willett & Sandro Carniel
Scientific Reports volume 11, Article number: 18039 (2021)


To prevent the outbreak of the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19), many countries around the world went into lockdown and imposed unprecedented containment measures. These restrictions progressively produced changes to social behavior and global mobility patterns, evidently disrupting social and economic activities. Here, using maritime traffic data collected via a global network of Automatic Identification System (AIS) receivers, we analyze the effects that the COVID-19 pandemic and containment measures had on the shipping industry, which accounts alone for more than 80% of the world trade. We rely on multiple data-driven maritime mobility indexes to quantitatively assess ship mobility in a given unit of time. The mobility analysis here presented has a worldwide extent and is based on the computation of: Cumulative Navigated Miles (CNM) of all ships reporting their position and navigational status via AIS, number of active and idle ships, and fleet average speed. To highlight significant changes in shipping routes and operational patterns, we also compute and compare global and local vessel density maps. We compare 2020 mobility levels to those of previous years assuming that an unchanged growth rate would have been achieved, if not for COVID-19. Following the outbreak, we find an unprecedented drop in maritime mobility, across all categories of commercial shipping. With few exceptions, a generally reduced activity is observable from March to June 2020, when the most severe restrictions were in force. We quantify a variation of mobility between −5.62 and −13.77% for container ships, between +2.28 and −3.32% for dry bulk, between −0.22 and −9.27% for wet bulk, and between −19.57 and −42.77% for passenger traffic. The presented study is unprecedented for the uniqueness and completeness of the employed AIS dataset, which comprises a trillion AIS messages broadcast worldwide by 50,000 ships, a figure that closely parallels the documented size of the world merchant fleet.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has recently produced one of the worst global crises since World War II. As of January 15, 2021, almost 100 million people have been infected worldwide, and over 2 million have passed away due to the disease. Consequences of the outbreak are impacting broadly all aspects of our society. In February 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended containment and suppression measures to slow down the spread of the virus1,2. Towards this direction and aimed at “flattening the curve” of infections so as to avoid overwhelming healthcare systems, many countries implemented unprecedented confinement measures, ranging from bans to travel and social gatherings, to the closure of many commercial activities. Evidence that the lockdown measures achieved a reduction of the rate of new infections is gradually appearing in the scientific literature3,4,5,6,7.

Many of the aforementioned restrictions are in contradistinction to “normal” routines. At a time when we are asked to come together and support one another in society, we must learn to do so from a distance. But the behavior changes have been deemed necessary, and some may provide useful insights regarding how we can facilitate transformation toward more sustainable supply and production10. The hope is that the macroeconomic system, global supply chains, and international trade relations will not revert back to “normal” and “business-as-usual,” and will allow the emergence and successful adoption of new types of economic development and governance models10.

On the other hand, both the outbreak and the restrictions are revealing the fragility of the global economy, sparking fears of impending economic crisis and recession11. Social distancing, self-isolation and travel restrictions have led to workforce reductions across all economic sectors. Schools have closed down, and the demand for commodities and manufactured products has generally decreased. In contrast, the need for medical supplies has significantly risen. The food industry is also facing increased demand due to panic-buying and stockpiling11.

Overall, world trade is expected to fall by between 13 and 32% in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts normal economic activity and life globally14. Business activity across the eurozone collapsed to a record low in March 2020, and US industrial production showed the biggest monthly decline since the end of World War II15. An example of the unprecedented financial changes is the price of oil dropping below zero due to expiry of delivery contracts and limited storage capacity to receive them, for the first time in history in April 20208,16, as reported in Fig. 1a. The connection between the recent spread of COVID-19, oil price volatility, the stock market, geopolitical risk and economic policy uncertainty in the US is studied by Sharif et al.17. Guan et al.18 analyzed the supply-chain effects of a set of idealized lockdown scenarios, using the latest global trade modeling framework. Given that lockdowns be necessary, the authors demonstrate that they best occur early, and be strict and short in order to minimize overall losses.

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