Dossier COVID-19: Working with you through these challenging times

17 June 2020
By Kunio Mikuriya, WCO Secretary General

When it was announced by the World Health Organization (WHO) that COVID-19 had become a pandemic, the WCO Secretariat’s management team quickly sprang into action, listing the urgent tasks to be done to support Customs administrations in managing the crisis and developing a business continuity plan.

Supporting Customs administrations

A dedicated webpage was created on the WCO’s website, which compiled all the instruments, tools, initiatives, and databases that could be utilized by Customs administrations in their efforts to address the various COVID-19-related challenges.

One of the first tasks was to publish HS classification references for COVID-19 medical supplies in collaboration with the WHO. Whilst not legally binding, the list is a key tool to support countries in identifying and ensuring that goods, which were essential in the fight against the virus, were cleared through borders as swiftly as possible. As shortages of medicines can worsen the situation, the WCO also published a list of priority medicines, defined as medicines used in the general management of hospitalized patients with COVID-19, medicines that are used as part of the direct treatment against COVID-19 in hospitalized patients, and medicines where interrupted supply could result in serious health consequences.

While the world is gripped by the fight against COVID-19, criminals have turned this into an opportunity for fraudulent activity. There have been an alarming number of reports quoting seizures of counterfeit and substandard critical medical supplies, such as face masks and hand sanitizers in particular. Recognizing the importance of permanent and real-time exchange of relevant information to fight these criminal activities, the WCO launched the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) CENcomm Group on the newly modernized CENcomm platform, its secure global communications system that enables countries to share alerts and requests for information worldwide.

Given the shortages and the activities of market speculators, another important trend was the introduction of export licences for certain categories of critical medical supplies, such as face masks, gloves, and personal protective gear. To help trade operators in identifying countries that had taken such measures and in finding the corresponding regulations, the WCO published and maintains a list of countries having adopted temporary export restrictions on certain categories of critical medical supplies in response to COVID-19. A list of countries having adopted temporary import support (lowering or waiving of direct and indirect duties and taxes) was also compiled.

In addition, guidance was provided on how to establish and utilize essential goods lists during a disaster and on how to communicate during a crisis. Letters were also issued to requesting Customs administrations to take specific actions on two specific issues, namely the ATA Carnet procedure and the clearance of postal items.

Contracting Parties to the Conventions on temporary admission were asked to provide sufficient facilities for ATA Carnet holders and representatives to re-export temporarily imported goods, without unexpected additional costs, in cases where delays in re-exporting were due to preventive measures taken by governments of the Contracting Parties against the spread of the virus. This measure was carried out in consultation with John W.H. Denton AO, the Secretary General of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), which represents National Guaranteeing Associations.

As for the clearance of postal items, the letter, prepared with the Universal Postal Union (UPU), called for administrations to be flexible and accept postal shipments with any of the accompanying legitimate UPU documentation even if it did not correspond to the mode of transport effectively used (e.g., CN 37 [for surface mail], CN 38 [for airmail] or CN 41 [for surface airlifted mail] delivery bills).

Indeed, as a result of COVID-19’s impact on the aviation industry, a large proportion of international mail has had to be shifted from air to surface transportation, such as sea and land (road and rail), and some Customs authorities were confronted with postal documentation intended for other modes of transport at land border ports due to the need to reroute postal traffic. The letter also addressed the need to accept, as the goods transit declaration, any commercial or transport document for the consignment concerned that meets all Customs requirements, as stipulated in the WCO Revised Kyoto Convention (Recommended Practice 6, Chapter 1, Specific Annex E).

Observations, priorities, and principles were also provided by the WCO Private Sector Consultative Group (PSCG). In addition, the WCO also requested its Member administrations to send information on the various measures that they had taken to prevent and/or fight the spread of the infection as well as any information on any challenges encountered, including web links to any relevant documents that they had published online, such as legislation, guidance material, etc. These case studies were published together with a list of contact points for inquiries at the national level concerning the import, export or transit of relief supplies relating to COVID-19.

Apart from the Customs-centric support being provided to its Members, the WCO also intensified contacts with its international partners representing both the public and private sectors, such as the ICC, the IMO, the OTIF-OSJD, the UPU, the WHO, and the WTO, to deliver common messages to frontline officers and economic operators. Via a series of joint statements, we called, among other things, for increased transparency on new trade and trade-related measures introduced in response to COVID-19; for assurance that any new border action is targeted, proportionate, transparent, and non-discriminatory; for continued freedom of transit; for a coordinated and proactive approach between public and private entities to ensure the integrity and continued facilitation of the global supply chain so that the flow of goods by sea, air, rail, or land is not unnecessarily disrupted.

Other organizations also offered guidance and recommendations and the WCO has partnered with the WTO, UNCTAD, the CSSO, the GATF, IATA, and the ITC to develop a COVID-19 Trade Facilitation Repository in which all these actions are consolidated. The repository acts as a platform that consolidates the initiatives on trade facilitation adopted by organizations and stakeholders, seeking to provide access to these resources in a unique and user-friendly database. It contains a useful listing of all such initiatives broken down by organization, type of measure, and subject matter.

Work continuity at the Secretariat

Measures were taken to allow the Secretariat’s personnel to work remotely, providing continuous and high-quality service throughout this trying time. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the Secretariat’s daily operations, leading to the cancellation of many missions and regular meetings. However, it did not prevent the Secretariat from engaging with its Members, reflecting on alternative solutions, and leveraging technologies to complete the activities earmarked in the WCO Strategic Plan.

Different channels were used to communicate with its Members and obtain their feedback on newly developed documents and initiatives. The Secretariat also invested efforts to deliver remote capacity building training and technical assistance to its Members, and to assess their potential new needs, directly stemming from the pandemic.

In parallel, the Secretariat is already working on activities aimed at improving WCO Members’ capacity to focus on business recovery and continuity. The project aims to provide assistance in dealing with potential disruptive scenarios in response to the COVID-19 impacts through various mechanisms, such as the development of new tools, and a tailor-made, dedicated capacity building programme with donor funding.

About the content of this magazine’s dossier

For the dossier of this edition of the magazine, we invited various administrations and organizations to provide an overview of how they responded to the crisis and to highlight any lessons learned. We also discuss the future of Customs and one area of enforcement which may not be very well known, namely the trade in wild plant resources. I would like to thank the authors for taking the time to contribute to the magazine, as I am well aware that time is a rare resource for management teams during a crisis. It might still be too early for many to reflect and share information yet, so we will continue to share experiences on this topic in the next editions of the magazine.

Indeed, it will be especially interesting to see how the crisis may have speeded up modernization efforts within Customs administrations, especially the use of technology. Ten years ago, our ability to respond would have been limited. However, thanks to technology, we are at a time where it exists, and is helping us to dampen the impact of COVID-19 somewhat.

It will also be of interest to monitor whether the crisis has led to some restructuring, where apparel, electronics, and pharmaceutical companies rethink their supply chains to make sure that they are globally diversified, and less dependent on one or two locations. Changing suppliers and logistics providers as well as revising sourcing will become more prevalent as companies seek to better secure their supply chains – Customs may have an educational and enforcement role to play here, to ensure these changes do not cause inadvertent compliance issues, such as violations of Customs regulations, sanctions, export control, or other trade laws.

At the WCO, we will continue to advocate for a global approach to this pandemic that is strongly focused on trade facilitation and supply chain security. Additionally, we will continue to support Customs modernization efforts, to enhance and update international standards as and when necessary, and to share expertise, especially in developing business continuity plans. In closing, I should stress that the unpredictable is not a reason to be unprepared; even less so now!