COVID-19: it is the logistics, stupid!

Paul van de Laar

Within Europe, the Netherlands is lagging behind in enrolling vaccination against Covid-19. This does not mean that the Dutch neglect the seriousness of the epidemic. Almost every evening, Dutch television viewers can witness how their country is struggling with the disease, watching virologists, epidemiologists, and even philosophers, psychologists, ethicists or economist interpret the crisis and plausible strategies to solve it. What strikes me, however, is the absence of logistics experts and professionals. From the start of the crisis, it was clear that the success of beating the virus depends on the efficiency of managing the logistics of tests. Especially now the vaccine must be distributed and lives are at stake, the key issue is - to paraphrase Bill Clinton - the logistics, stupid! And where do you find experts on this issue? Exactly: in the mainport of Rotterdam.

Last November, I gave a lecture for knowledge platform SmartPort, raising the question: what lessons can we draw from the past and how can a programme like PortCityFutures be of service to them? During the discussion, the role of the future of the port of Rotterdam was considered against the background of its historical development. The audience was convinced that Rotterdam would not only maintain, but strengthen its position, even when Rotterdam’s port is a free-oil zone and living in CO2-neutral environment.

But what about transport in a post-COVID world? I answered that COVID offers an ideal opportunity to speed up a process that has already been set in motion. Not only processes concerning climate change and the energy transition, but also the urgency to be a creative port. But not creativity at the margin of the port or fringe economics, but as an essential ingredient to rethink existing port business models. Even if this means that Rotterdam will be a smarter but smaller port.

Rotterdam is already a smart port, as is evidenced by the sophisticated application of artificial intelligence, custom systems, and automatic container handling. Many results have already been achieved in being a front runner in advanced technologies. Maasvlakte 2 turned into a showcase for smart operations and advanced technologies, remotely controlled by IT specialists and logistics operators who turned container terminals into play stations.

Fortunately, we now have a vaccine and if it is produced in enough quantities, the biggest challenge lies with the logistics of getting the doses where they are needed. But this operation can only be successful and realised in time, if the organisation and logistical operations are changed and managed by experts on logistics. Not only the specialists of the Dutch Army, but from the port of Rotterdam. The GGDs (Municipal Health Services) and RIVM (National Institute for Public Health and the Environment) are experts on viruses, epidemics and how to combat them, but I have the impression they try to reinvent the wheel. There are too many examples in the recent past showing they are not well-equipped to organise a logistical operation of the size and efficiency that this pandemic requires.

Our Minister of Health, Hugo de Jonge, is a resident of Rotterdam and should know that. I recently saw him on the news on the port peninsula of Katendrecht, close to the Rijnhaven. In my opinion, this is a symbolic location. The Rijnhaven, dating from the end of the 19th century, was the first real transhipment port. It was constructed specifically for transit traffic with Germany, and it therefore was at that time an optimal logistic service to the hinterland.

This, however, should not just be a nice historical reference. The Port of Rotterdam would make a wonderful showcase to inaugurate their vital role in a high-added value economy during this COVID-crisis. Not as the well-known world transit port for bulk goods, petrol or cheap consumer goods that containerships from China deposit here and are distributed across Europe, but as a portal of global health. Rotterdam is already on the map with virology experts from the Erasmus MC, its academic hospital. Their CEO, Ernst Kuipers is now a national celebrity, and could easily bridge the gap to tackle this challenge together with the engineers of Delft, the econometricians and big data analysts of the Erasmus University and SmartPort, and, of course, the experts who have joined the PortCityFutures platform.

When we talk about added value and the fee a consumer is willing to pay for transport, medical items and living organs are the highest valued and much wanted goods. They are at the top of the pyramid. Nobody wants to negotiate a fare or tries to optimise costs when lives are at stake. Nevertheless, logistics experts are missing in the public debate about healthy ports.

Rotterdam: seize your chance and show that Rotterdam is a real smart port by becoming the medical mainport. Start now, in this moment of crisis, and then offer your services to Europe and the world. Tell the national minister to go back to his roots and take logistics seriously. Take an active role by becoming an agent in supporting the United Nations’ global health agenda. When talking about healthy ports, we rightly think about a sustainable reduction of pollution, investing in green port design and developing new strategies towards the storage and transport of hazardous products. But to really think about healthy port city futures, it is time to take social responsibility in the global distribution of goods and services in relation to health our health. Starting with the vaccine.

This blog has been written in the context of discussions in the LDE PortCityFutures team. It reflects the evolving thoughts among group members on the socio-spatial and cultural questions surrounding port city relationships. Special thanks for comments and reviews to Carola Hein, Hilde Sennema, Thomas van den brink and Sabine Luning.