The impact of COVID 19 on road transportation in South America
Hello to all,
I write to you while working from home in Buenos Aires, a city about to enter its 100th day of quarantine. Weather-wise, we are supposed to be almost in winter, but I am still in a T-shirt.
In my previous newsletter, I explained that many countries in the region underwent elections at the last quarter of 2019, then changed president between December and January. But January and February are summer holidays so mid-March was the time to start business. We were all getting ready when… the COVID19 virus started to spread badly, and we saw borders totally closed, leaving people and goods stranded on the way, until further decisions were made. The figure shows the different countries shut down, with the darker red representing more severe restrictions.
Transport companies and truck drivers stepped up to the challenge. They were needed to guarantee supplies – food, water, hygiene products, pharma, and not least, rubbish collection!
South America is a land of social inequalities which are highlighted by the current economic crisis in highly urbanized areas. To give you context, we are talking of transporting drinking water and cooking gas to some places, in a moment where the World Health Organization (WHO) is explaining about the importance of hygiene. For example, a slum in the outskirts of Buenos Aires was without water for 8 days.
I would like to divide this June newsletter into four parts. The first two, the reactions to the virus spreading. Which brings me to two words: Discrimination and Recognition. In my research for this newsletter, for which I did a few interviews, I have seen these two words being repeated and repeated. Thirdly, what can we learn from what happens as Road transport technology professionals. And lastly, a little food for thought…
1st reaction: Discrimination
According to the English dictionary, the word Discrimination is derived from Latin, meaning “to distinguish, to separate”, and can have a positive or negative connotation. In this newsletter I shall take the negative one, “the practice of unfairly treating a person or group differently from other people or groups of people”.
As explained, by mid-March, as the virus started to spread. First country borders started to close to non-residents, followed by provinces, states and municipalities. No more country border crossing, no more state border crossing, unless you had a special permits (a paper document!) Overnight the rules changed, and many were left outside their homes without the possibility to come back. A driver told me he was away from his home for 54 days while the state experienced a complete lockdown. Fortunately, he works for a large company which took care of him, but others were not as lucky. It was a complete logistics nightmare.
Note that those checkpoints or blockages placed by municipalities or provinces to isolate their inhabitants varied from dirt ramparts to barbed wire and a simple sign. One driver commented that as the quarantine started, transportation work increased. Unilaterally and with no previous warning, municipal authorities decided to block the many entrances leaving only one or two as the town checkpoint. This decision meant trucks had to travel many more kilometers trying to find ways to circumvent the towns plus queueing up for more than 12 hours. In the cold Patagonian region, he said, idling in order to provide himself with some heat was indispensable, added to the stress of looking the fuel gauge decrease as the hours passed and wondering if there was fuel at the next station, if he reached it.
Municipalities did this out of fear plus knowledge of local behavior. For example, one driver tried to cross a control with 5 men hidden in the trailer, without any permit to work or circulate, and they were detained at the checkpoint, as the picture shows.
The president of the Brazilian National Association of Cargo Transport and Logistics (NTC), an entity founded in 1963 representing about 10,500 companies operating a fleet of more than 1.5 million trucks, could not have said it more clearly: “In my 78 years of life, I have never faced a crisis like the one the world is going through with this pandemic. It is a difficult situation, because we need to isolate ourselves to live and, at the same time, we need to have the resources to survive. We know that it is difficult not to be affected by this crisis, but we must continue, within the possibilities, supplying the country”.
A similar cry was heard from other transport associations indicating that “drivers put their lives at risk to carry food and are mistreated by the population. Towns have individually decided to place checkpoints so that trucks would not be able to enter the town or even stop at the crossroads, service stations closed or if they were opened, entrance to go the bathroom or buy something to eat is denied”.
The understanding that drivers have the same fears as everyone else about contracting the virus was not thought of. Or worse, as one driver sadly told me, “I am mostly afraid of getting the virus and taking it home to the family. And yet I have to work and eat alone at the side of the road because I am discriminated in towns I take supplies to, sent away from shops where owners have known me for ages…”. The picture shows a blockage at the Posadas-Encarnación bridge, one of the borders between Argentina and Paraguay. Similarly, between cities of the same country, bridges which before united now separate their inhabitants.
A road block at the Posadas-Encarnación bridge, one of the borders between Argentina and Paraguay
The 2nd reaction: Recognition
One of the meanings of the word Recognition is “acknowledgment, especially formal acknowledgment of the political existence”. In Spanish there is a saying “No hay mal que por bien no venga”, similar to the English one “it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good”, in the sense that even a very bad situation could have some good results.
In Argentina, after hearing the concerns, truck dealers and manufacturers like Scania, Mercedes, VW as well as fuel companies like Shell and the state-owned YPF opened their doors to truck drivers and workers, so they could have a warm meal, a place to rest safely, to maintain their hygiene. YPF made a commitment to establish a 24-hour service system around service stations so that workers can help in extraordinary circumstances, to keep parking facilities sanitized at all times; guaranteeing the supply of edible products for 24 hours next to soap and/or alcohol in gel, in addition to ensure drivers had adequate toilets to achieve proper hygiene and cleanliness. Readers, you do not want to know the state of these facilities before.
In the first week of June, the Argentine government together with the transport associations held a meeting where a Covid 19 Emergency Protocol for general and dangerous goods on national roads was presented. The protocol establishes actions to prevent the spread of the virus, applicable to the different stages of the trip (loading, traveling, stops, and unloading) and to the sanitary conditions that the truck must have, in line with WHO recommendations. Although I tell you, many of the drivers whom I have travelled with keep their truck so clean than any WHO recommendation is counterproductive! But most importantly, in that meeting truck drivers and transport owners were finally recognized for the effort made during the 3 months of quarantine. By the way, note that our closedown has not ended yet and is said to continue until September at the very least.
The Brazilian NTC has been working together with all associated entities to receive government recognition for measures that help ease the flow of transporting cargo.
In Colombia, the Transport Ministry started “Heroes of the Road”, a national tribute that recognizes the work of truck and bus drivers as well as road workers whose daily effort and commitment allowed Colombia to ensure supplies so that people could stay home. The initiative allows Colombians to show their gratitude by leaving thank you messages in the portal.
Heroes on the Road: it is the moment to applaud and thank. Source: https://www.mintransporte.gov.co/publicaciones/8378/heroes-en-la-via/
So, what about road transport technology?
The speed for changing habits as a way of coping with the spread of the pandemic of COVID19 has not let us stop to think what happened in these months. Technologies which were being tested with all the safety protocols and implementation procedures were fast forwarded; other proven technologies which were available but not implemented because of force of habit at the workplace, were implemented overnight; and practices and behaviors which were thought eradicated, resurrected in the name of the “greater good”. No plan or thought process. No safety protocols. Paraphrasing from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, “we were making it up as we went along”.
In that Argentine COVID 19 Protocol, it was set that loading and unloading activities are to be done by local people. Also, to facilitate and reduce paperwork, transportation documents will be sent electronically to the transport company and/or driver, providing a timeslot.
Yes, it is unbelievable why it was not done before… Well, a company transportation manager told me that in order to answer to the COVID 19 the company decided to digitalize all paperwork drivers previously presented at the entrance of the warehouse, as during the loading/unloading. Drivers from this company told me it was so much easier than before! They loved it, besides being safe for them too, since now they do not even have to step down from the truck, enter an office, talk or touch. All digital. Why was it not done before? “Well, some adjustments were fast forwarded by the pandemic, and this took us out of our comfort zone. The risks of implementation that previously would have been carefully measured, were ignored and the “just do it” style was imposed, solving mistakes as they presented.”
A forestry manager commented that the company decided to implement only 75-tonne bi-trains (interlinks or B-doubles) in their operation instead of a large and diverse fleet, with different weights and dimensions to check every time. By working around the clock, it meant less transport operators to deal with, and better efficiency and health safety for all involved, since human contact needs to be reduced. Bi-trains in Argentina are required to have certain safety technologies for both truck and trailer (some compulsory, others optional), and this appears to have helped result in little to no accidents during this time, both in the forest or while unloading the logs or loading the final product.
Another driver told me that fortunately the technology of the truck he was driving was a guarantee of safety and comfort. EBS, stability control, approach and obstacle sensors, diverse driver assistance devices that helped him avoid potential accidents in checkpoints or obstacles on the road previously inexistent -remember dirt ramparts, barbed wire-, especially at night or with fog. Although he considers these technologies should be mandatory in all vehicles, he mentioned that many drivers do not use these devices although their units have them, because they do not know how to use them and/or their benefits. Of course, he was one of my trainees at the School for Bi-train Drivers!
Another driver I interviewed told me that their company gave them a mobile phone with a speed warning application, which is used together with GeoFencing systems. These apps and systems provide not only safety but companionship to the driver, since the app´s voice explains the road signs, what is going on ahead which is useful especially when signage road markings are poor. The driver was particularly adamant in that electronic calibrations in the wheels should be compulsory, as well as air suspension and parking sensors. In Argentina only bi-trains, fuel trucks and some general goods transport companies are using modern technology, which is compulsory in bi-trains, but these companies have seen their benefits in safety and fuel consumption for other types of vehicles too.
Food for thought…
In short, available road transport technology and knowledge can help reduce unwanted contact that can spread illnesses. Appropriate legislation and resources to provide for a wider use and control of intelligent infrastructure, vehicle telematics, High Performance Vehicles, logistics personnel special training, among other measures, will enable humans to work in a semi-autonomous way from a safe place. COVID 19 pandemic showed that road transportation can be recognized as the good guys, not the villain. So maybe this is the time to request our place at the decision making table.
I look forward to meeting you in Qingdao next year. I am sure we shall have plenty to share there.
Vice President, Central and South America
International Forum for Road Transport & Technology