Sunday 22 March 2020

Keeping the mail flowing: How the world’s postal operators are confronting COVID-19

20.03.2020 - COVID-19 resembles a deadly firestorm that appears to have begun in Asia and rapidly fanned out leaving few nations untouched. Today, the center of gravity of COVID-19—declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on 11 March—has shifted towards Europe

More than 250 million people across Europe are in lockdown. Like many other places globally, schools have closed, non-essential shops are shuttered and employees have been sent home to work remotely or to look after their families.
The Universal Postal Union (UPU), the UN specialized agency for postal matters, is a clearing house for messages sent between the designated postal operators of its 192 member countries (Emergency Information System or EmIS). These messages offer an unrivaled snapshot of how a global industry of an estimated 5.3 million employees and 655,000 offices have battled to maintain the movement of billions of parcels and letters in the face of a global pandemic.  
Between 28 January and 18 March, 89 messages were distributed among postal operators by the UPU. These messages included one from Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of China, on 30 January, noting that processing had been disrupted by the spread of the virus. A major problem at this time was the increasing number of flight cancellations making the delivery of post almost impossible.
As the spread of the virus weakened in some countries, it grew stronger in others. There were announcements of the resumption of mail services in some countries; although worryingly, as the virus spread, there were further statements of suspensions. On 11 March, for instance, South Korea announced it was suspending mail exchanges with Australia and Egypt. 
Throughout early and mid-March, countries faced further flight suspensions, an integral element of postal logistics. Djibouti announced the suspension of flights, while Denmark and Sweden suspended the acceptance of mail from elsewhere. Other countries followed the WHO guidelines and practiced “social distancing.” Both Australia and Estonia announced the suspension of required signatures for inbound items. On 16 March, the Netherlands also announced changes in the delivery process.   
From 16-18 March, as the pandemic spread to parts of Europe and elsewhere, there were messages stating the “suspension of postal activities” (Tunisia), announcing the “entire territory under quarantine” (Honduras) and declaring “a state of emergency” (Romania).
When viewed together, the messages reveal how the world’s Posts, who together form an international network dedicated to delivering post to everyone on this planet, grappled with the greatest threat to world trade since the Second World War. In doing so, they show Posts working in cooperation to overcome a global pandemic, the suspension of essential flights and the threat of the deadly virus to their own staff.
“The Post’s experience in the first quarter of 2020 shows how a global pandemic has splintered the world’s trade and commerce. It is also a tribute to everyone in the postal industry who, despite this extraordinary situation, has continued to try and keep the post moving,” said David Dadge, Programme Manager for the UPU’s Communication and Events Programme.   
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