A coronavirus outbreak in southern China has clogged ports critical to global trade, causing a shipping backlog that could take months to clear and lead to shortages during the year-end holiday shopping season.
The chaos began unfolding last month when authorities in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong — home to some of the world’s busiest container ports — canceled flights, locked down communities and suspended trade along its coastline to bring a rapid spike in Covid-19 cases under control.
The rate of infections has since improved, and many operations have restarted.
But the damage has been done. Yantian, a port about 50 miles north of Hong Kong which handles goods that would fill 36,000 20-foot containers every day, was shut down for nearly a week late last month after infections were found among dock workers. While it has reopened, the port is still operating below capacity, creating a huge backlog of containers waiting to leave and ships waiting to dock.
The congestion in Yantian has spilled over to other container ports in Guangdong, including Shekou, Chiwan, and Nansha. All of them are located either in Shenzhen or Guangzhou, the fourth and fifth largest comprehensive container ports in the world. The domino effect is creating a huge problem for the world’s shipping industry.
The Yantian backlog “is adding extra disruption on an already stressed out global supply chain, including the significant seaborne leg of it,” said Peter Sand, chief shipping analyst for Bimco, an association of shipowners. People “may not find all they were looking for on the shelves when shopping for Christmas presents later in the year,” he added.