The health crisis produced by COVID-19 has changed the world, our economies and habits. Among the most affected sectors are international trade and cargo and container transport.

At present it is common not to find some products in stores, almost all industries have problems of shortage of supplies that are attributed to the pandemic. Some sources even claim that there will be a shortage of Christmas goods and that buying gifts will be more expensive this year. Behind all this, there is a problem of shortage of containers worldwide.

The transport of goods by sea is the main driver of international trade. Considering that the planet is covered by water in its two thirds, the maritime transport of cargo supports the greatest movement of goods, both in containers, as dry or liquid bulks. There are between 5 and 170 million shipping containers around the world, enough to supply international trade, so why is there a shortage of them?


Empty freight containers stacked up at Shanghai’s Waigaoqiao port - Container Shortage 2021

Source: Daniel Ren, South China Morning Post


Between March and June 2020, the countries closed their borders and international trade was reduced to a minimum, imports and exports were reduced due to the collapse of the demand for goods in the world. In the second half of the year 2021, a rebound in the world economy was observed, the projections published in the April 2021 edition of World Economic Outlook foresee that the world economy will grow by 6.0% in 2021 and 4.9% in 2022. Leading this economic growth, China will grow by 8% in 2021, more than double that of the most successful Western countries even before the pandemic.

The Chinese economy, driven by its exports, has benefited from lockdowns in Western countries. Western demand for household consumer goods, technology products and medical supplies has increased and Chinese exports to the US have reached record levels. Thus, many containers with Chinese goods went to Europe and North America, but did not return, because the export from Europe and the US to China was significantly reduced.


Container ships wait to unload cargo outside the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach - Container Shortage 2021

Source: Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles Times


The result was that thousands of empty containers were stranded in these ports, and not in the Asian ports where they were needed to continue exporting. In addition, in European and American ports, there is a shortage of personnel to unload and transport the containers. Before the pandemic, a cargo ship took 2 days to return to its place of origin, today that process takes between 1 and 2 weeks.

It would be easy to think that the shortage of containers can be solved with the manufacture of more units; However, in the short term it is not the way to overcome this crisis. The main producer, China International Marine Containers, cannot cope with the huge time and resources required to manufacture new containers.

It is important to remember that around 80% of world merchandise trade is carried out through maritime transport. Experts agree that the logistical problems stemming from the pandemic will continue for much of 2022.

Anna Melounová | 19. أكتوبر 2021