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September 17, 2020

No Talking, Eating: ‘The Seven Commandments’ And Why 14 Business And Professional Groups Support Reduced Commuter Distancing

No Talking, Eating: ‘The Seven Commandments’ And Why 14 Business And Professional Groups Support Reduced Commuter Distancing Passengers inside a jeepney with plastic seat dividers in Tandang Sora, Quezon City wear face mask and face shield on Sept. 15, 2020. Photo by Michael Varcas, The Philippine STAR

Fourteen business and professional organizations are supporting the safe revitalization of the country and the restoration of livelihoods by gradually increasing public transport capacity, in conjunction with “The Seven Commandments” of public health measures.

The so-called Seven Commandments were proposed on Tuesday, Sept. 15, by an expert panel of doctors led by former health secretary Manuel Dayrit as the Department of Transportation (DOTr) eased physical distancing in public utility vehicles to be able to ferry more passengers amid the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

These are the commandments:

1. Wear proper face mask

2. Wear face shield

3. No talking, no eating

4. Adequate ventilation

5. Frequent and proper disinfection

6. No symptomatic passengers

7. Observe physical distancing

Dayrit and another former health secretary – Esperanza Cabral – said “gradual reduction” of physical distancing in public transport could be feasible provided that there is strict public adherence to comprehensive health protocols.

In a letter submitted to the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF), the doctors said that since the government has “successfully increased and improved current hospital capacity, there is now an urgent need to revitalize the country.”

“We need to emerge from the current recession that has severely impacted livelihoods. This will enable our countrymen to work again, so that they can feed their families and support their communities,” the doctors stated.

They argued that the country could not rebuild the economy without increasing public transport capacity, which has been operating at only 20 to 30 percent of pre-pandemic levels “due to understandable fears of outbreaks arising from congested public transport spaces.”

“By imposing these strict measures, we believe we can gradually relax social distancing rules, in order to double or even triple our current public transport capacity, without compromising public health,” the doctors said.

The group added that while the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends keeping a distance of one meter from other passengers to the extent possible, it allows for adjustments based on context.

They also cited a recent study published in Lancet, a leading international medical journal, that face masks and face shields can independently reduce the chance of viral transmission by fivefold and threefold, respectively.

“Based on our review of the scientific literature and the policies and experiences of neighboring countries, we believe the evidence shows physical distancing can be maintained below one meter, so long as other health measures are also implemented,” the experts said.

The two-page letter was signed by Dayrit and Cabral together with doctors Vicente Belizario Jr., dean of the University of the Philippines-Manila’s College of Public Health; Teodoro Herbosa, special adviser to the National Task Force Against COVID-19 or NTF; Michael Hernandez, chairman of the UP-Manila Department of Environmental and Occupational Health; Manuel Francisco Roxas, director of the Philippine College of Surgeons Cancer Commission; Ma. Dominga Padilla, founder and chief executive officer of the Eye Bank Foundation of the Philippines, and Rontgene Solante, former president of the Philippine Society of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases.

With the doctors’ statement, the 14 business and professional groups recommended on Wednesday, Sept. 16, that the government adopt “The Seven Commandments” that medical experts said would “allow us to manage viral transmissions well even when reducing physical distancing requirements.”

“Backed by science and global best practices, this combination of health measures will be one of the strictest in the world and will enable better public transport,” the groups said.

“We recognize that most Filipinos still need to move around to reach their workplaces, meet essential daily needs, and provide assistance to the vulnerable sectors. Limiting public transportation encourages more crowding and longer queuing, which lead to further exposure to the virus. People should practice physical distancing where appropriate but be given alternative options to relax this requirement where the risks are manageable,” they added.

The 14 organizations are the Bankers Association of the Philippines, #BounceBackPH, Foundation for Economic Freedom, IT and Business Process Association of the Philippines, Management Association of the Philippines, Makati Business Club, Philippine Business for Education, Restaurant Owners of the Philippines, Semiconductor and Electronics Industries in the Philippines Foundation Inc., the Philippine Association of Multinational Companies’ Regional Operating Headquarters Inc., and the American, Canadian, European and Japanese chambers of commerce.

“We believe that the safe and gradual increase in public transport capacity is a critical step towards achieving the long-term objective of building a revitalized and more resilient Philippines. To restart the economy safely, there is a need to immediately focus on rebuilding national confidence through vigilance, discipline, and education through the 5T’s Plan, of which transportation is at present the key bottleneck,” the groups noted.

The 5T’s stand for testing, tracing, treating or T3, transportation and transformation.

“T3” involves public and private collaboration to support the NTF’s plan to “Prevent, Detect, Isolate, Treat and Recover” and ensure workplace safety.

“Transportation” aims to provide safe public transportation to enable mobility of consumers and workers.

“Transformation” refers to shifting mindsets to shared responsibility among government, citizens and the private sector to enable coexistence with the coronavirus.

Under transportation, the groups said “we must both (a) increase the overall supply of various modes of transport (buses, trains, jeeps, transport network vehicle service or TNVS, motorcycle taxis, walking, cycling, and shuttles), and (b) increase vehicle capacity utilization safely, to ensure that more Filipinos can go back to work.”

“We believe a combination of these measures will be amongst the most comprehensive in the world. By ensuring strict enforcement, we would be able to relax physical distancing requirements in order to increase our current public transport capacity, while minimizing the spread of the virus,” they stated.

While the WHO recommends “to the extent possible” keeping a distance of at least one meter from other passengers “when purchasing tickets, waiting to board public transport, and moving around public transport stations,” the groups agreed with Dayrit and the expert panel of doctors that the international body also “allows for adjustments based on context.”

“Given our other recommended health interventions, we propose the gradual reduction of the physical distancing norm during transit to 0.5 meters or lower. Based on our review of the scientific literature and the policies and experiences of neighboring countries, we believe the evidence shows physical distancing can be maintained below one meter, so long as other health measures are also implemented,” the groups noted.

Given the recommendations, the groups said they support the DOTr’s plan to gradually relax distancing so long as the “Seven Commandments” are well communicated and strictly enforced.

“Its rollout must be done with the proper pace and caution under monitoring and evaluation by public health experts, who can recommend a return to stricter measures should the situation require it. We believe that the issues of safety and supply are both addressed and given equal importance. We need to adopt a holistic mindset in approaching this pandemic situation in order to revitalize the country safely,” the business groups declared.

Policy stays for now

The implementation of reduced physical distancing in public transportation – a move that other doctors fear could lead to a spike in COVID-19 infections – will continue unless President Duterte stops it, according to his spokesman Harry Roque Jr.

Roque said on Wednesday that the IATF came up with a recommendation on the distancing requirement after a six-hour meeting with health experts last Tuesday. The recommendation is being evaluated by the President.

“It was previously approved in the last IATF meeting last Thursday. So, until the President revokes it, I think it will be implemented,” Roque told CNN Philippines. “In fact, in the last address to the nation of the President, that is exactly what I said: because of serious differences between two departments of government, ultimately, it will have to be the President to decide.”

Roque did not elaborate on the latest IATF recommendation, but claimed it was based on science.

“I think the President will decide not later than (Thursday, Sept. 17),” he said.

The government has eased the physical distancing requirement in mass transportation as it expects more people in areas that were placed under lockdown to return to work. The relaxed protocol, which took effect on Monday, Sept. 14, reduced the distancing requirement from one meter to 0.75 meters. The requirement may be reduced further to 0.5 starting Sept. 28 and to 0.3 meters beginning Oct. 12.

Cabinet members have differed on the issue, with Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and Interior Secretary Eduardo Año saying the one-meter distancing is non-negotiable to prevent COVID transmission.

In a press conference during the launching of the Bida ang May Disiplina: Solusyon sa COVID-19 national campaign at Camp Crame in Quezon City on Wednesday, Año said the reopening the economy should not be done at the expense of the riding public. 

Duque backed Año, saying that one-meter distancing in public places has been proven effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19 by as high as 81 percent.

“You are going to reduce the risk of getting the virus or transferring or contaminating someone,” Duque said.

Adding face masks and face shields with physical distancing would increase the rate of protection to 96 percent, he added. “The farther you go the more effective the risk reduction and the better protection rate.”

Roque said even health experts have varying views about the eased distancing protocol, which is being implemented despite the continuous rise in the number of COVID-19 infections in the Philippines. He noted that Dr. Antonio Dans of the Philippine College of Physicians had urged officials not to reduce the one-meter distancing requirement.

“It’s not as if it was the first time that the IATF considered the matter. It was previously approved in a meeting last Thursday (Sept. 10), but despite that, it took us another six hours to discuss, and with the assistance of resource persons, all of whom are respected doctors,” Roque said.“When the IATF approved it, there was no objection, there was no controversy. The controversy came out again when medical groups, after the decision was made, made an issue out of it,” he noted.

Año has said the IATF was not properly consulted, while Duque said he was not present at the IATF meeting.

Roque also denied that the Department of Health (DOH)’s advisory about maintaining minimum health standards contradicted the DOTr’s decision to ease the distancing protocol.

“They emphasize only the importance of observance of minimum health standards,” Roque said, referring to the DOH. “I had to ensure that of course the DOH will not issue a conflicting press statement, and I have a copy of that statement issued by Secretary Duque, there was no such thing. What he said was, DOH was still insisting on minimum health standard, there was no mention of one meter in that statement.”

Roque said Duterte brought up the topic on the reduced distancing requirement last Monday because of the letter from the Philippine College of Physicians.

The Palace spokesman said he had asked Dans about the views of his group, which  “seems to be giving opinions that the government is making the wrong decision.”

“I’m going to be candid. I started the line of questioning, and I addressed my concerns to Dr. Dans, because Dr. Dans is also part of the same group that called for the (two-week) timeout. I really asked, will the IATF’s opinions really matter? Because it appears that Dr. Dans’ group, whenever they speak, they speak to the public na and they seem to be giving opinions that the government is really making the wrong decision,” Roque said.

“So I wanted to be sure that they were not wasting time. Kasi if they were always going to insist on their position, regardless of other considerations, we might just as well accept the position of Dr. Dans’ group as gospel truth,” Roque added.

“But Dr. Dans, in fairness, said that, of course, they have recommendations, but they will bow to the policy of government. They know that it’s going to be (a) difficult decision, they know that there’s going to be other considerations that will have to be considered.”

Roque said transportation is a “sensitive” issue since the economy cannot be reopened unless people can go to work.

“How are we going to expect workers to go to their places of employment if there is not enough public transportation?” he asked. “That’s the essence of the debate.”

“It’s not as if one side wants to expose the population to the disease intentionally just for the sake of (the) economy. Because the reality is, even if you survived the disease, if you can’t survive because you are in poverty, that would not really lead to any positive results. So it’s a very difficult decision,” he pointed out. “I think the President knows it’s not an easy decision.”

Mayors not consulted

The Metro Manila Council was “not consulted" about the DOTr’ move, its chairman, Parañaque City Mayor Edwin Olivarez, said on Wednesday.

Olivarez expressed belief that all 17 Metro Manila mayors would object to the policy. Earlier, the mayors asked for consistency in implementing physical distancing protocols when queuing and while already inside public transportation.

During the Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum, Olivarez said the mayors were "shocked" that the reduced commuter distancing would already be implemented this week.

"In our (MMC) discussion, we were left dumbfounded because there was no proper consultation with the 17 mayors," Olivarez said in Filipino.

He said that he would be "fine" with 0.75-meter physical distancing between commuters, but decreasing it further to 0.5 and 0.3 meters, "that is a no-no" especially since Metro Manila remains to be the epicenter of the pandemic.

"It is better to defer the lesser physical distancing. Our cases have not plateaued yet," he maintained.

"We have to open the economy, but we should not compromise health protocols and the public health," he declared.

Olivarez also said that while he supports the jeepney modernization program of the national government, "this is not the right time" to implement it.

Traditional jeepneys should still be allowed to traverse the roads and not just modern jeepneys, he insisted.

He said that while modernization is a step in the right direction, the government should give constituents breathing room especially with the pandemic still afflicting every sector.

"We have to modernize, but what the constituents need, especially those who were displaced and who lost jobs, is breathing room. The jeepney drivers would follow health protocols and guidelines," Olivarez said, noting that there are some jeepney drivers who are begging for money and who are living inside their jeepneys. – With Emmanuel Tupas, Romina Cabrera

Read more: SURPRISE! ‘Mass Recovery’ From COVID-19 Recorded In A Single Day As Cases Hit Close To 90,000, Exceeding China’s

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