I receive with cautious optimism the news that Malacañang is easing public transportation woes by approving the “one-seat apart rule” for public vehicles like buses and jeepneys. It is also increasing train capacity to 50% from 30%. Although jeepney operators are asking if the new seating rule applies even to vehicles already installed with plastic dividers between passengers.
Regulatory agencies are now drafting the guidelines on how to implement the Palace directive. Meantime, minimum health and safety standards in place include requiring face masks and face shields for PUV passengers. The Cabinet also allows provincial buses, motorcycles taxis, shuttles, and transportation network vehicle service to gradually resume operations.
These easing initiatives are intended to help move more people, particularly to and from work, as more businesses are restarted. Already, the Department of Trade and Industry has issued rules for certain industries to resume full operations. The Palace is also looking at easing age restrictions, to benefit those 15–65 years old, and shortening curfew hours to 12 m.n.–5 a.m.
More jeepney routes have also been reopened, with regulators reminding jeepney operators and drivers to limit the number of passengers to 50% capacity meantime; to ensure physical distancing; and to strictly implement the “no mask, no shield, no ride” policy. These rules apply to all types of PUVs on roads now.
Easing transportation restrictions can go a long way in helping particularly daily wage earners get back on their feet. A friend, for example, is already seven months behind on rent and is being threatened with ejection. The landlord cannot be blamed. He is also in dire need of cash for chemotherapy, being a cancer victim himself. The situation is difficult, but compassion still prevails.
My friend works at a salon, and works on commission. With most salons shuttered for several months, there was no work, and thus no income. Salon work resumed only last month for my friend, but few customers have been coming in. Service is also by appointment only, and so work depends on customers’ time options.
There is also difficulty in getting to work, with few options available. The most affordable option to a wage earner, jeepneys, operate in their place only from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m., and then again in the late afternoons. No trips in between. So, even if client appointments are in the afternoon, my friend needs to leave the house before 10 a.m. to catch the “last” trip in the morning.
Their employer also does not allow them to “stand by” at the shop, and perhaps rightly so. So, even if at the vicinity of work by 11 a.m., my friend needs to “hang” somewhere else until the 2 p.m. client comes in. Then, after rendering service, my friend must leave the premises unless the next client appointment follows soon after.
And then, there is the difficulty again in catching a jeepney ride back home. There are instances that my friend spends more on transportation in a day than what can be earned in commission. Of course, beggars cannot be choosers. There are good days, and not so good days. Costs are simply borne in the hope of making a profit another day.
This is the reality many of our workers, mostly daily wage earners, face nowadays in Metro Manila. Not many companies can afford to provide workers’ dormitories or shuttle services. And very few can be expected to maintain such arrangements or services long-term. Most, if not all, of those companies who provide such services now will most likely have to end them by the end of this year.
Some businesses have closed, and revenues are down for most others. Business costs are also higher for a number of firms as the cost of “self-transportation” and maintaining health protocols continue to outweigh savings from building management and utilities as employees work from home. A big cost, real estate, remains. Even as more people work from home, many employers still have not opted to cut down on real estate or office space.
The availability of transportation, or improved access to affordable and safe public transportation, can go a long way in helping particularly daily wage earners fend for themselves. It can also help salaried employees who have had to shell out a little more for transportation daily as their share in the subsidized cost of going to work using private shuttles, or taking taxis or TNVS. Moreover, more public transportation can help troubled businesses save on cost by cutting down on their spending for private shuttles.
More important, more public transportation means more public transport workers going back to work, earning daily, and getting off streets as beggars. It helps restore their dignity and sense of purpose. And it allows them to again earn a decent living for their families. For sure, with drivers and operators back in business, fewer families will continue to go hungry.
The reality is that while businesses are allowed to resume 100% operations, they will not run without a sufficient number of workers. And workers, while fit and ready to go to work and earn, cannot make it to work unless transportation is available. So, easing transportation restrictions will be a major boost. One can only hope regulators can draft guidelines for this fast enough.
The challenge, however, is how to ensure public health and safety as soon as more public utility vehicles are put in operation. For sure, there will be a tradeoff. At some point, particularly at the start, we may see an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases, particularly in urban areas. And once provincial buses also start running their routes, even the virus will also begin to enjoy more “travel” options.
I am not privy to data whether people are more likely to get sick at home, at work, or while commuting to and from work. But, from experience, it seems fewer people got sick when most everybody was made to stay home. And that the number of cases started to go up as soon as we started easing restrictions. And, most of those getting sick appear to be of working age.
Indeed, we are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Easing transportation restrictions is timely, if not necessary. But there will be consequences. Are we prepared to deal with these consequences? We have had a hard time containing the spread of COVID-19 to date. But the virus, on its own, does not travel. It spreads mainly as people carrying it move around. And that is precisely what will happen once transportation is made more available. We just have to be ready for this.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippines Press Council