It’s only been weeks since the administration had to drop, ignominiously, its much-lambasted order for motorcycle riders to install a barrier on such vehicles, ostensibly to prevent transmission of COVID-19 between the front and back riders. Already hard-up citizens had to fork over extra cash to have such a barrier installed, even as motorcycle manufacturers and other experts warned that the government imposition was unnecessary, potentially dangerous to riders, and unsupported by science. Interior Secretary Eduardo Año was the most bullheaded exponent of the order, castigating naysayers and vouching for the efficacy of his pet project. But in the end, the government unceremoniously dropped the requirement, without so much as an apology to a harassed public for all the confusion and anxiety spawned by such shambolic decision-making.Has the administration learned from that embarrassing debacle? Apparently not, from the way the new rule on physical distancing between passengers in public utility vehicles (PUVs) is being rolled out.
Last week, Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade announced that the current physical distancing imposed on PUV passengers will be reduced from one meter to 0.75 meter starting Monday. Then, the distance will be progressively relaxed until it reaches 0.3 meter, allowing PUVs—including the MRT and LRT trains—to carry more commuters.
Tugade said the measure was approved by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) and the National Task Force Against COVID-19. But what is the basis for the progressive reduction in physical distance? The order was “not a knee-jerk reaction…but a product of research,” Tugade maintained.
In its website, however, the World Health Organization continues to advise individuals to “(m)aintain at least a one-meter (3 feet) distance” from the next person.
The health department was in fact not consulted on the new policy; neither was it approved by the government task force. That’s according to Año, now on the other side of the fence, who declared that the regulation should be rescinded as it was issued without the imprimatur of local medical experts and the task force. He also agreed with Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, who quoted a study by the Healthcare Professionals Alliance Against COVID-19 warning that the new policy might result in 686 daily infections in Metro Manila and increase the number of deaths.
Metro Manila mayors registered their opposition to the new rule as well, complaining that they were not consulted at all. The latest guideline is “illogical” since the government has, for the past six months, been “teaching the public about the importance of distancing,” Navotas City Mayor Toby Tiangco said. “It makes no sense to reduce this especially in enclosed spaces where the risk of transmission is higher.”
“They’re experimenting on people’s lives,” lamented Lawyers for Commuters Safety and Protection head Ariel Inton. “What commuters want are more seats in public transport. We can have that without sacrificing [physical] distance.”
In this regard, the proposals of Marikina Rep. Stella Quimbo and the public interest groups Action for Economic Reforms (AER) and Move As One Coalition stand as viable and commonsensical alternatives to the latest absurd measure concocted by the government. The public clamor is for more public transportation, not relaxed social distancing between passengers, they noted. Thus, allow more PUVs to operate and provide safe alternative transport options to commuters, the AER said in a statement. Pour in more investments in public transport, such as open-air jeepneys, which would allow proper ventilation and a safer travel option for the riding public, according to the Move As One Coalition. It also suggested that more funds be allocated for active transportation infrastructure such as dedicated PUV lanes, cashless fare collection systems, protected bike lanes, at-grade crosswalks and wider walkways, as it noted that road-based public transport received only around P12 billion in investments, or only 0.01 percent of the gross domestic product, from 2016 to 2019.
With even Cabinet members publicly disagreeing on the issue, the matter is left once more, in the words of presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, “to the wisdom of the President.” It would be up to Mr. Duterte to “ultimately decide” on the reduced physical distancing rule, Roque said, adding that Malacañang would “reassess” the policy and consider the opinion of medical experts. Good grief, shouldn’t that have been done before a single word of the new policy was crafted and announced?
As the government’s position on various COVID-19 concerns has swung wildly from one bewildering, haphazardly considered step to to the next, a frustrated public is right to ask: Just who is in charge here?
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