We open with words of wisdom from Sen. Nancy Binay, who has in the past been derided for her supposed lack of preparation for the post she occupies but who has now become a source of practical, down-to-earth, and trenchant observations.
On the transport crisis that greeted workers and commuters on the first day of the general community quarantine (GCQ), Binay commented: “Di po lahat ay may kotse. Di lahat ay may motorsiklo o bisikleta. Di lahat kayang maglakad ng ilang kilometro sa gitna ng baha at ulan. Di po sila experiment (Not everyone has a car. Not everyone has a motorcycle or bicycle. Not everyone has the capacity to walk several kilometers in the middle of floods and rain. They are not an experiment). Our workers and the commuting public don’t deserve this kind of treatment. For the past three months, they’ve sacrificed more than enough.”
Binay was reacting to news coverage of stranded commuters bemoaning the absence or lack of public transport last June 1. It would have seemed only logical that in the face of the loosening of controls to jumpstart the stalled economy, adequate preparations for the shift to GCQ would have been carried out. After all, there was more than enough time to study the situation, ready workplaces and business districts for the deluge of workers, and ensure that going to and from work after months of quarantine would be as orderly, and safe, as possible for the riding public.
But what awaited workers/commuters instead? As the headline of this newspaper pointed out: “Chaos as thousands return to work in Metro Manila.” Ordinary folk were forced to walk for kilometers, or hitch rides from private vehicles, or elbow each other into scarce free rides belatedly offered by the government, thus ending up breaking distancing rules. Some daily wage-earners ended up blowing a whole day’s pay on taxis or TNVS rides.
Others who resorted to alternative transport like bicycles then found themselves on the receiving end of government wrath, with Metropolitan Manila Development Authority spokesperson Celine Pialago threatening to file charges and impose fines on biking advocates who set up temporary barriers on Edsa to protect bike riders from early morning traffic.
The next day, the responsible officials found a target for their convenient ire. Who else but the beleaguered commuters who had suffered at their hands?
MMDA General Manager Jojo Garcia said that “people seemed to have lost focus” on the COVID-19 threat when the quarantine was loosened and the public headed out for work. Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade, while admitting that the bedlam “was a result of what we call failure of implementation and we need to correct it” (note the passive voice—whose fault, pray tell, was that failure of implementation?), also insisted the government had “never promised” that transportation would be available once the GCQ was declared. But what was it expecting? Government regulations had effectively halved the capacity of public forms of transport due to the need to observe social distancing. How hard a thought process was it to consider next the logical consequence of that situation—that many workers, whose return to work the government and private sector had declared essential, would be left stranded or forced to walk under the searing sun?
Motorcycles and bicycles, on the other hand, are not allowed to take on passengers. When asked about a married pair of health frontliners commuting to work, Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año suggested they could add a sidecar to keep their distance. But that would make their vehicle a tricycle, and tricycles are not allowed on major thoroughfares. (The Palace added to the muddle by first saying sidecars were now allowed on national highways, then retracting the statement just hours later.)
Bicycles, long pushed as a healthy alternative to gas-emitting vehicles, have gained adherents among local governments, but national officials still seem unwilling to allow them leeway on city streets. Pialago, quick with what she imagines are “solutions,” said bicycles should be confined to sidewalks—even if these are nonexistent in many areas, occupied by pedestrians and street vendors and filled with obstructions like street signs, trees, and sheds.
The bottom line is that officials like Tugade, Año, and the MMDA worthies had more than ample time to sit down over the last 70-plus days and figure out how the “new normal” in transportation would work out. They didn’t even have to wait for the GCQ to be declared. There was certainly enough opportunity for them, if they were so inclined, to draw up a thorough, competent plan on how to best manage the complex and confusing transition that would ensue on the streets once controls were loosened.
But they failed, and the Monday commuter inferno was the result.
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