Q&A: the impact of Covid-19 on piracy in East Africa

Ilaria Grasso Macola 7 July 2020 (Last Updated July 7th, 2020 16:58)

Countries around the world are still experiencing the economic consequences of the current coronavirus pandemic. Some states are more likely to also experience a resurface of piracy in their waters. We spoke to maritime risk prevention company ARX Mouldings about its latest report on coronavirus and piracy in East Africa.

Q&A: the impact of Covid-19 on piracy in East Africa
The area was considered safer in recent years. Credit: US Pacific Fleet.

In May 2020, two pirate skiffs attacked a tanker vessel in the Gulf of Aden, until they were pushed back by the ship’s armed guards. No crew member was injured, despite both sides exchanging fire.

The episode has raised concerns in the maritime industry about the potential dangers of East Africa. Once considered one of the most dangerous routes for commercial vessels, the region has been deemed safer in recent years due to the decrease in pirate attacks.

To see if there is a connection between the spread of Covid-19 in the area and a higher risk of piracy, maritime risk prevention company ARX Moulding has released a study.

dARX Mouldings vice-president Joshua Hutchinson and researcher Emma Hulbert explain the study’s key findings and the connection between a country’s socio-political conditions, the spread of coronavirus and piracy.

 

 

Ilaria Grasso Macola (IGM): When was the study developed and what was the rationale behind it?

Joshua Hutchinson (JH):  The study was developed at the beginning of June. For the last three years, we have had a partnership with Glasgow University’s security studies masters students, with whom we work alongside every year.

We usually look at a range of topics and look at which ones are relevant within the industry, but this year, given the current pandemic, we felt that there was a real need to understand current security in East Africa and the effects of the pandemic.

So that’s why we put together a study focusing predominantly on security changes since the pandemic.

 

IGM: What are the study’s key findings?

Emma Hurlbert (EH): Our key finding is that the pandemic provides a great opportunity for piracy, not only in terms of motivation but also because there is a higher opportunity for attacks to be successful.

Attacks have a higher opportunity to be successful because of the mental health and fatigue experienced by the seafarers as well as a lack of vessel inspections.

We don’t know if there’s necessarily going to be increased piracy in this region but we know that it’s a good opportunity.

 

IGM: In your research, you have analysed seven countries, including Egypt, Yemen and Somalia. What differences did you identify between the countries?

EH: While some countries have not changed their security risk, some have. We evaluated them in terms of risk of piracy, risk of crew being infected with Covid-19 and risk of crime.

Most countries haven’t really changed in terms of piracy, however, Yemen and Somalia are the ones we’re focusing on in terms of piracy.

JH: The reason we focused on these countries is that, while they’re seen as areas of risk, they have strong commercial operations.

When working with maritime companies that have commercial vessels going in and out, they want to understand the evolving and relevant risk.

 

IGM: What is the correlation between socio-political conditions of a country, the presence of coronavirus and piracy?

EH: If we look at the case study of Somalia, we can see that socio-political conditions had an effect on piracy, especially in the early 2000s. The economic situation and the political chaos – with the central government not having control over the whole country – led to an extremely high level of poverty and an increase in piracy.

When the coronavirus broke out, the whole world started to experience an economic downturn, with people facing harsher economic conditions and not being able to survive.

This is one way the Covid-19 pandemic is having an effect, as some countries may be having political unrest due to their government’s response to the coronavirus.

 

IGM: What is the situation in Yemen and how should the maritime industry treat it?

JH: When we’re talking about malicious piracy attacks, Yemen is a bit different to Somalia because it a political agenda, which is localised. However, it should still be treated and evaluated the same, in terms of operations.

When shipping companies are looking to work around the area, not only do they need to apply best management practices in their operations but also a level of commercial risk.  That’s the big thing that any shipping company will take out of this study.

 

IGM: Can we consider the coronavirus as a potential pull factor not only in Yemen but in the whole of East Africa?

JH: In my opinion, the pandemic indirectly affects the risk of piracy taking place.

The reasons include crew fatigue and the ability to perform security procedures diligently, as well as vessel inspections.

Vessels that are not going through standard inspections will run longer engine times and therefore slower speeds to save energy.

Looking at the past two years’ worth of data, we have noticed that there is an increase in activity which is directly correlated to the outbreak.

EH: The coronavirus can worsen the economic and political conditions of a country and that can potentially create motivation for piracy, but that alone does not mean that there will be an increase in attacks or an increase in successful attacks.

There are a lot of other factors – it’s not a direct link, but it is one factor within the whole puzzle.

 

IGM: What measures can shipping companies adopt to shelter themselves from piracy?

JH: We support and advise our customers to use three layers of security: primary, secondary and final layer.

Currently, we protect around $50bn worth of assets every day using the ARX Anti-Boarding and Climbing Barrier, and the ARX Evictor water cannon.

We believe in the methodology of ‘deny’ rather than the ‘delay’ approach, compared to others which use razor wire and trenches. Razors look aggressive but they have never stopped people from boarding.

We implement an anti-piracy barrier that prevents hooks, ladders and poles from gaining access to the ship, and which has prevented attacks from taking place, even in high-risk areas.