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September 14, 2020

Increase Public Vehicles Instead Of Reducing Space Between Commuters – Health Experts, Groups

Increase Public Vehicles Instead Of Reducing Space Between Commuters – Health Experts, Groups Philippine Army reservists, marshals and employees of the Philippine National Railways participate in the simulation of physical distancing and safety measures at the PNR Station in Tutuban, Manila on May 29, 2020. PNR resumed operations with reduced passenger capacity as the general community quarantine in Metro Manila took effect on June 1, 2020. Photo by KJ Rosales, The Philippine STAR

Citing lack of evidence, health experts and groups have opposed the government’s plan to gradually reduce the required physical distancing among passengers in public utility vehicles – with some critics arguing that the number of deployed units should be increased instead to get more people to work amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

From the one-meter distance imposed when public transportation was allowed under the general community quarantine, this would be reduced to 0.7 meter from today, Sept. 14, then 0.5 meter from Sept. 28, and 0.3 meter from Oct. 12.

Department of Transportation (DOTr) Undersecretary Artemio Tuazon Jr. announced in a Sept. 12 virtual briefing that the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Disease had approved the plan.

This was despite the World Health Organization prescribing a safe space of one meter. The United States’ Centers of Disease Control and Prevention even states a distance of 1.83 meters (six feet, equivalent to the length of two arms).

Keeping away from other people helps avoid the possibility of aerosols and droplets from an infected person’ spit, sneeze or cough from being inhaled – a precaution that is especially important when some virus carriers do not display any symptoms.

Masks, shields not enough to do away with distancing

Philippine General Hospital infectious disease doctor Edsel Maurice Salvana, also a member of the Department of Health’s (DOH) technical advisory group on COVID-19, said in a Facebook post on Sept. 13 that the DOTr’s plan was “problematic.”

Salvana contradicted DOTr’s Sept. 11 statement that it would be safe to reduce the space among passengers because they would be using face masks and face shields.

Even if there is just a single COVID-19 positive person in the vehicle, Salvana warned that “anyone less than one meter from him/her after 15 minutes becomes a close contact who will need to quarantine and can potentially spread disease.”

“Wearing masks and face shields will mitigate transmission but the close contact definition remains,” he said.

‘High cases lately’

Dr. Anthony Leachon, a health reform advocate and former president of the Philippine College of Physicians, questioned why the physical distancing guidelines in public transportation were “suddenly relaxed” when there were “high cases lately.”

In a series of Twitter posts over the weekend, Leachon said there was “no evidence that a distance of less than one meter in a public transport vehicle can help prevent the transmission of the virus.” He called on the government to observe “calibrated planning” and “not propagate errors” by hastily coming up with such guidelines.

“We all want to perk up our economy – but not this way,” Leachon said . “DOTr and the IATF should reconsider new guidelines before we all experience a mighty surge of new cases in NCR (National Capital Region). Let’s propagate guidelines based on sound scientific evidences.”

Leachon once served as an adviser to the National Task Force Against COVID-19, until he said he was forced to resign in June by Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and presidential spokesperson Harry Roque for criticizing the DOH’s lack of focus.

‘On our own’

Meanwhile, Makati Medical Center physician Gia Sison questioned why the DOTr was calling the shots on a public health matter, especially as she could not find the rationale for its decisions.

Andito pa po at laganap pa po ang COVID (COVID is still here and widespread), reducing physical distancing will just aggravate matters and bakit DOTR ang nagde-decide (why is DOTr deciding this)?” she said in a Twitter post on Sept. 11.

Sison urged the public to “please keep in mind the minimum health standard of 1-2 meters apart no matter what.” She added: “Hindi pa po bumababa ang mga kaso ng COVID (The number of COVID cases is not yet going down). Please be extra vigilant, tayo-tayo na lang ito (we are now on our own).”

Public complacency feared

Even groups that focus on the economy, such as the Action for Economic Reforms (AER), expressed concern given the timing of the DOTr’s policy. In its Sept. 12 statement, AER said the government should look at “lessons from countries with a resurgence of COVID-19” after they relaxed their quarantine measures in response to downtrends.

AER echoed the health experts’ assertion that the DOTr cannot rely on the use of face masks and face shields alone to prevent the spread of the virus. It also noted that the DOH has yet to withdraw its advice for people to keep away from each other.

“The strict enforcement of health protocol while aboard public transport, such as the mandatory wearing of face masks and face shields, and barring passengers from talking or making phone calls, needs to be coupled with strict physical distancing to prevent a resurgence of cases,” the AER said.

“While opening the economy and allowing public transport in order to recover livelihoods is welcome, this needs to be accompanied by strict physical distancing rules,” it added.

AER also warned that the DOTr’s policy may mislead the public into thinking that “things are now normal, which will result in complacency in practicing social distancing.”

Make more vehicles available

Commuter advocacy group Move as One Coalition, in its Sept. 12 statement, said the DOTR should “address our public transport shortage by making more vehicles available instead of compromising minimum public health standards and putting many lives at risk.”

It also called on the IATF to specify in its Resolution No. 69 that the one-meter physical distance shall continue to be enforced. The said resolution did not mention any specific minimum space.

This was similar to Leachon’s suggestion that the government should “allow all types of public transport but keep social distancing and health protocols.”

It may be noted that the government has cracked down on traditional jeepneys and took advantage of the pandemic to force its controversial phaseout program, forcing displaced drivers to beg on the streets.

Transport groups agreed that allowing more public utility vehicles to resume their operations would be safer than rushing the increase in the number of passengers in the very few units allowed to ply their routes.

Bakit nagkakaroon agad tayo ng pagluluwag sa distancing ngayong marami  pa namang ibang nag-aabang na payagang tumakbo at may prangkisa at nag-aabang na makapaglingkod sa mga pasahero? (Why are we hastily relaxing distancing when there are still many franchise holders waiting to be allowed to operate and serve commuters?)” Alliance of Concerned Transport Organizations (ACTO) president Efren de Luna said in a Sept. 13 radio interview.

De Luna estimated that of the meager 1,800 jeepneys recently allowed by the DOTr to operate again, only 30 percent were back on the streets as the rest have gone back to their provinces due to the financial impact of the government’s restrictions. He added that 90 percent of UV Express units have remained suspended too.

Pinagkaisang Samahan ng mga Tsuper at Opereytor Nationwide (Piston) president emeritus George San Mateo said the DOTr was only endangering the lives of drivers, transport workers and passengers to prevent operators from being unable to pay back the debts they incurred under the jeepney modernization program.

The jeepney modernization program banned individual operators and refused to extend sufficient loans so they would be forced to band together into cooperatives that can purchase the expensive air-conditioned units priced at around P1.5 million.

Jeepney modernization woes

In a Facebook post on Sept. 12, San Mateo said the one-meter physical distancing requirement and the 50-percent passenger capacity limit meant the modernized jeepney fleet operators could not recoup the costs and would be buried deeper in debt. On the other hand, he said traditional jeepneys would be “safer,” as operators and drivers have installed plastic dividers to separate the passengers.

Kaya sinisiksik nila ang pasahero sa loob ng pekeng modern jeep para kumita ng malaki kahit pa isakripisyo nila ang kalusugan at buhay ng mga pasahero sa COVID (This is why they are packing the passengers inside the fake modern jeep so they can earn more even if they sacrifice the health and lives of passengers to COVID),” San Mateo said.

Kung ganyan lamang gagawin ng DOTR na babawasan ang physical distancing ay dapat lalo na nila payagan na makabalik-pasada lahat ng mga orig na Pinoy jeep na kung saan ligtas ang pasahero dahil tunay na tumutupad ang mga orig Pinoy jeepneys sa physical distancing (If reducing the physical distancing is what the DOTr plans to do, they should all the more allow the original Filipino  jeep to return to the street where passengers are safer because the original Filipino jeepneys observe physical distancing),” he added.

Support from the House’s economic committee chair

Although health experts and transport sector stakeholders opposed the DOTr’s policy, it was received well by House economic affairs committee chair Rep. Sharon Garin.

The AAMBIS-OWA party-list representative in her Sept. 13 statement cited findings in the wealthier countries of Japan and France where “links of new COVID-19 clusters to public transport remain zilch” due to the wearing of face masks and the restriction on close range conversations.

“Without public transport, people can’t go to work and businesses won’t open. When supply for public transportation is less than demand, people forego social distancing. The wheels of the economy won’t start turning without ample public transportation,” Garin said.

DOTr’s Tuazon maintained that they issued the guidelines in response to public clamor and the call of the government’s economic managers to address the severe lack of public transportation that has prevented workers from going back to their workplaces and hampered the revival of the flagging economy.

He claimed that the DOTr studied how to meet the demand “na hindi sinasakripisyo ang kalusugan at kapakanan ng ating mamayanan (without sacrificing the health and welfare of our countrymen).” The apparent solution was to crowd people inside the very few available vehicles instead of increasing the number of units on the road.

DOTr Undersecretary Timothy John Batan claimed that there were consultations with medical experts and that simulation activities and a survey of international practices were conducted.

When the policy takes effect today, Monday, Batan said the capacity of each of the country’s four operating railways would be increased to 184 to 274 passengers, from the current 153 to 166.

Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board chairman Martin Delgra said each jeepney, 2x2-type bus or UV express van can accommodate an additional one or two passengers. Maritime Industry Authority administrator Vice Admiral Robert Empedrad said.

The government has consistently been criticized for bungling the public transportation measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Aside from depriving millions of drivers and their families of livelihood, many health workers and employees of the few businesses allowed to continue operations during the quarantine were forced to walk to their workplaces, in some cases for several hours.

When the lockdown began in March, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles even said frontliners would just have to ride private vehicles if they did not want to walk, forcing private individuals with their own cars to pick up the government’s slack. The government was eventually forced to give free shuttle services.

Years before, in an Oct. 17, 2017 speech, Duterte cursed out the drivers and operators who feared the loss of their livelihood. “Mahirap kayo? Put**g ina, sige. Magtiis kayo sa hirap at gutom, wala akong pakialam (You’re poor? Son of a b***h, fine. Suffer from poverty and hunger, I don’t care),” he said.

Decision defended

The IATF has defended its decision to allow the reduction of physical distance between riders in public transportation, saying additional health protocols would be observed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The easing of the distancing requirement, which will take effect today seeks to "optimize" the carrying capacity of public transport modes as more people return to work, the DOTr said.

IATF vice chairman and Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles assured the public that health measures would be enforced in public transportation.

"We are studying ways to increase the capacity of (public) transportation, to accommodate (more) passengers while not sacrificing health," Nograles said in Filipino during an online live session last Saturday, Sept. 12.

"These kinds of adjustments being done by DOTr, is carefully calibrated but it does not mean we would not add health protocols when we reduce physical distancing," he added.

Nograles explained the DOTr had studied the public transport protocols of other countries like Japan. He said commuters in other countries are required to wear face masks and face shields.

"We are balancing health and economy – our health needs and the economic aspect. We are slowly reopening our economy, allowing more economic activities, and people are returning to work... Our countrymen who need to work find it difficult to go to their workplace because of the gap in transportation," Nograles said.

Nograles disclosed the IATF would continue to consult with health experts to ensure that health protocols are observed while relaxing quarantine restrictions. He said task force members would hold a dialogue with health experts today and would meet again the following day to discuss pandemic-related matters.

"This conversation is continuous because we are watching over the safety of everybody because nobody wants transportation to be the cause of the spread of COVID-19," Nograles noted. – With Alexis Romero

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