“..This train from Yiwu to Madrid, which is the longest rail line in the world, has been regularly running since 2014. It usually carries electronics, automobile components, and other goods, but from now until the crisis ends the company has made space available to any individuals or companies looking to make a donation to the COVID-19 relief efforts in Europe..” so reported Forbes a few days ago.
Logistics and transport services are at the core of any pandemic response. So, why would Pakistan be thinking twice about this? To answer this, we need to look deeper and separate this into its four dimensions which will help understand the suggestions proffered later in this blog. The first obviously is passengers and goods, the second is across the border versus within the borders, the third one is the mode of transport—rail, road, air, and water, and the fourth one is the reliance on indirect supply and demand patterns for pricing. I will not focus much on another dimension which is intra and intercity, as we are basically discussing continuity of cross-Pakistan logistics and essential services.
We will start with modes. Trains don’t usually jump tracks and neither to airplanes take multiple pitstops and chat with other airplanes along the way. Ships have ports of call and rather large crews barring very modern ones. Road traffic—trucks, buses, cars—has choices to do all the above. In fact, when dealing with aids, it is truckers we tackle as they not only are a source of carrying and transmitting and intervening, but their social ambivalence levels normally exceed average people. So be there wars or pandemics, the first choice for logistics and transport are trains and aircrafts. Pakistan unfortunately has very rudimentary railways’ capability and for us the choice for major within country movement falls on the road sector services. Air service and airport are also very easy to ‘contain’ and as such need revised SOPs during pandemics. In fact, restricting people travel to strictly rail or air in a contained manner is a preference in both war and pandemics.
Within our borders, road transport and logistics followed by air and rail will have to be continued as essential services. Across borders, it is obvious that essential inputs to our economy (both finished and unfinished) must be continued and for this our ports need to be operational. Now’s not the time to focus on Gwadar rather it is time to concentrate on our two major ports, Qasim and Karachi. Air services can and will continue to pay the appropriate role followed to some extent by road sector in the case of our links with Afghanistan, Iran, and to a very small extent China. Ensuring continuity and in fact acceleration of Customs and related clearance services is required, to ensure that Goods Clearance times are brought to nought.
Most important is to decide on who avails the continued essential transport and logistics services. The priority must be goods transport followed by security and medical. The many transport and logistics services serving transport of people need to rethink the business model on how they can stay relevant and survive. Transport of people is secondary given the nature of this pandemic and the country would serve well to regulate the same.
This brings us to cost of services. Pakistan like other transport markets has its own peculiarities when it comes to how costs are estimated. Pakistan exports less than it imports, and it does so primarily through two seaports. This results in a directional imbalance in the availability of transport which impacts costs. This imbalance is compounded by the fact that the nature of our exports tends to be less cost dense which the imports tends to be more cost dense. Further, being a large agricultural country crop seasons impact availability further. In times such as now, these costs become further unpredictable.
Be ready to reestablish ‘fair price’. I say this as otherwise continuity of services will be jeopardized. With approximately 200,000 trucks on the road and about a million plus employed directly in trucking, this is very much part of the daily wagers’ and almost- to actual- poor that government is talking about targeting.
All this points to a COVID-19 response strategy for continuity of logistics and essential services as follows. A) Focus on continuity of goods transport. B) Focus on improving CONVID-19 awareness amongst the truckers in Pakistan. C) Revise the established government ‘rates’ at local, provincial and federal levels to above pre-CONVID-19 levels. D) Reduce harassment [primarily by provincial security agencies] of truckers providing these essential services along the roads. E) Request and recognize those people transporters who are willing to run essential ‘goods supply routes’ both inter- and intra-city. F) Decree Customs and clearance services to operate 24/7 at the seaports, in shifts. G) Develop and decree revised SOPs for ‘contained’ movement of people though air and rail.