By Richard Brennan, OCO Head of Secretariat
The economic crisis caused by COVID-19 will continue longer than the health crisis. The continuation of trade is important for all economies- nations still need to have imports and exports moving across borders during this pandemic. Customs agencies, therefore, play a key role in ensuring that national health task force regulations are implemented and conducted in accordance with safe handling procedures.
Customs work during COVID-19
The challenge customs officers face today is multifaceted. Customs officers must continue to facilitate trade under restrictive quarantine measures designed to ensure nations are COVID-19 free. This includes boarding of vessels under strict health guidelines to enable cargo movement and the safe handling of cargoes and vessels to keep boarding parties and cargo handlers safe. OCO has provided guidance to customs administrations on managing cargo and people movement, which are linked to the Pacific Humanitarian pathway, so that medical supplies and health workers can continue to be sent where they are needed in response to the pandemic.
Customs agencies also play a key role in a nation’s security. When that security is threatened by a contagion, customs will follow the advice of the health agency on how it manages both people and cargo movements including postal packets.
In the Pacific, nations have implemented quarantine measures that are designed to keep vessels entering a nation in quarantine for a designated period to ensure it is COVID-19 free, and that cargo is managed in accordance with the national health principles. Customs agencies are working together to enable the facilitation of trade and returning nationals to be conducted in a safe manner with much of the Pacific remaining COVID-19 free.
Customs role in the “new normal”
While some Pacific Island countries are still COVID-19 free, the role of customs will be important when borders do re-open. Customs officers will be at the front line- inspecting passengers and cargo and allowing movement of vessels and aircraft as they would normally do pre-COVID-19.
However, in this context of a “post pandemic” environment there will be the added aspect of facilitating cross border movement in a safe “COVID-19 normal” manner to ensure nations remain free of the virus as much as possible.
Customs agencies will need to work with other border agencies including Immigration and Health departments to facilitate this movement. As nations, either individually or regionally, decide to free up current restrictions, national customs services will simply adopt the national governments policies and follow suit.
OCO believes there will be continued health checks for arriving passengers for some time until a vaccine has been made available widely throughout the region and that the “new normal” whatever that will be , will be something customs agencies simply have to adapt to in the medium term along with the rest of society.
OCO in the “new normal”
Like many organisations, OCO has implemented a few actions to protect its staff from the virus and at the same time continue to meet the needs of its 23 members during this pandemic.
The secretariat assisted the Pacific Islands Forum Regional Security Task force in formulating a regional response towards the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway and shared best practice examples from members in the region.
We have changed our operation model from face to face workshops into electronic modality using Zoom to deliver webinars or training for members and working with partners such as the Centre for Customs and Excise Studies in Canberra, Australia.
OCO also continues to support the Pacer Plus implementation through a suit of training activities and legislative reforms for parties. We have also discussed capacity building initiatives with the World Customs Organization. The annual OCO Heads of Customs meeting, which was supposed to be held in Cook Islands, will now be held online.
While COVID-19 has changed the way we do things, in this “new normal” the role of customs agencies has become more important than ever. We must continue to work together to fight this virus, to fight criminals and to earn revenue for our nations.
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About OCO: OCO is a grouping of 23 customs administrations in the Oceania region. It facilitates regional cooperation, information sharing and capacity building of its members with the overall target of supporting economic growth and improved border security in the Pacific.