Canada port strike delays shipment of medical supplies to Zimbabwe

Canada port strike delays shipment of medical supplies to Zimbabwe

By CBC News

While work has resumed at the Port of Vancouver in the month since International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) members first went on strike, the resulting delays have impacted charities and businesses on Vancouver Island.

Dell Marie Wergeland, president of the Compassionate Resource Warehouse, says the group has medical equipment and other supplies to send to Zimbabwe in a shipping container, which its team of volunteers will use on an upcoming trip to conduct surgeries and skill-building classes.

However, due to the strike at the Port of Vancouver in early July, the ship scheduled to transport the container wasn’t able to get loaded, so the group lost its booking. In the weeks since, Wergeland says they’ve unable to rebook — and are closing in on the deadline for when the container will need to be shipped, or risk not making it in time to meet volunteers.

About 20 B.C. doctors are scheduled to fly in January 2024 to conduct two weeks of surgeries. Wergeland says many of them have been asking her if they need to reschedule their trips, but without a new booking for the supplies, she hasn’t been able to give them any answers.

“I think that’s the hard part, that it just affects so many other people,” she said.

“If the teams can’t go over, then there’s no surgeries, or there’s only surgeries with the surgeons that are there. Supplies are incredibly limited in Zimbabwe and as a patient you have to buy your own supplies and take them into the hospital.”

A tentative deal was reached this week for the labour dispute affecting about 7,400 B.C. port workers, which union members will vote on Thursday and Friday.

Racing for a spot

There’s still a narrow window of time for Compassionate Resource Warehouse to attain a new booking and ship its container, but if it doesn’t leave by mid-August, the supplies will not arrive in time for the volunteer’s visit in early January.

“We’re small, so we really are in competition with all the big guys to obtain a little spot on the ship,” she said.

Compassionate Resource Warehouse has sent more than 500 shipping containers to over 70 countries since 2000. Last year they sent 21 shipments and so far, this year, seven. This week, supplies were loaded in Victoria for a separate mission to Ethiopia.

Wergeland said she is used to the disruptions labour disputes can cause, having encountered similar issues multiple times in the past. She said she supports port workers’ right to job action.

“We’re still hoping it will [work out],” she said about the affected shipment to Zimbabwe.

Typically, Wergeland says it takes 8 to 12 weeks for a shipping container to travel from B.C. to Zimbabwe. She says the container needs to arrive and clear customs before mid-December, as that is when things close down in Zimbabwe for the holidays.

A man pushes a dolly with a box of donations, of which you can see a bike and other colorful objects, into the back of a container ship.
Volunteers from the Compassionate Resource Warehouse in Victoria load a container ship bound for Ethiopia on August 1, 2023. (Dell Marie Wergeland)

The container will hold 8 hospital beds, stretchers, surgery supplies, carpentry tools, and sewing machines, among other donations.

If the charity can get a booking and can load their container within the next 10 days, she believes everything may still come together in time.

In response to questions from CBC News, the Port of Vancouver said it is working on an update regarding the port’s recovery from delays, and that terminal operators are responsible for the movement of cargo at the port.

‘The nick of time’

Andrew Wooldridge, publisher of Victoria’s Orca Books, says he was worried about 11 new releases that were stuck waiting to be unloaded at the Port of Vancouver during the strike. The majority of the bookseller’s business comes from fall and holiday sales.

“Things worked out in the nick of time,” he said.

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