As the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19 persists, the movement of relief goods including Medical supplies and equipment through borders all over the world has increased dramatically.
Customs officials have found themselves in the frontline in the fight against the virus. This calls for them to strike a balance between their own safety and facilitating trade to support the fight against the pandemic by timely clearance of medical supplies but also clear other goods necessary for economic recovery.
Following the declaration by the World Health Organization (WHO) on 11th March 2020 that the Coronavirus was a global pandemic, the World Customs Organization advised its members to not only continue facilitating the movement of essential supplies to fight the virus but also goods that can mitigate the overall impact of the COVID-19 outbreak to the economy and societies in general.
Like many other industries and professions, COVID-19 has disrupted the way of doing business for Customs officials because of the risk of exposure to officials, and complicated Customs border control management. The crisis has raised the need for Customs Organizations to come up with innovations and inventions on customs processes during and post COVID-19 era to ensure the timely clearance of goods while safeguarding the safety of officers on the other hand, since the World health organization indicated that the virus is here to stay.
For instance, some of the processes that require physical solutions include the following:
- letters by clearing agents
- letters by importers requesting for extension of the period for entries.
- converting cargo on transit for home use.
- re-warehousing and other formalities, which need a signature and stamp to signify approval by Officers.
Although a number of customs administrations have considered sending such documents online with necessary attachments, such realignment in processes may go to the core of Customs laws and policies. The challenge however, is how the officers can authenticate the documents online and the method that the officers can use to replace the physical signature and stamp in their approvals.
An opportunity has been provided as automation initiatives are now being accelerated.
Larry Liza, the director of World Custom’s Organization East and Southern Africa regional office for capacity building (WCOESAROCB), in his paper entitled impact, opportunities and trends of COVID-10 in Eastern and Southern Africa region dated, 20th April 2020 stated that over the last decade, members have upped their customs reform and modernization processes and strategies leading to some form of automation in all the member states but investments in ICT infrastructure had been hampered by the high costs involved
"COVID-19 has forced many organizations and agencies to have their staff at home during the season. For some government agencies such as customs, successful implementation of this strategy has been hampered by lack of portable equipment for home office environment, inability to monitor and quantify the use of time and difficulties in permitting remote configurations especially with systems built under local area networks (LAN),’’ he added.
The Director said many governments and agencies are therefore expected to further upscale their automation processes and invest more in equipment and human resources relating to information and communication technology.
COVID-19 has triggered a revolution in Customs procedures that may completely change the face of Customs in the future.
By Victor Mwasi
KRA Southern Region.