Iconic jeepneys
INTROSPECTIVE - Tony F. Katigbak (The Philippine Star) - July 1, 2020 - 12:00am

These days everyone is focused on creating some sort of “new normal”. I honestly don’t like that phrase because it indicates that we are out of the woods, and I don’t think that we are by a long shot. What we need to do is focus on survival for the next few months until we have a firm hold on the virus and can manage and properly prevent transmission and spread. Only then should we try to create basic norms for life – or a “better normal”. After all, I don’t think we should just accept that hundreds of new cases a day is “normal”.

Either way, many Filipinos do need to live and they have to find ways to effectively survive as we wait for the day we can vaccinate and treat this virus effectively and efficiently. That was the point of re-opening the economy despite not having the flattened the curve yet (which is what the lockdown was supposed to do). We need to move forward and we have to find safe ways to do that because we aren’t anywhere near where we need to be.

For some, that means reopening their offices and working on different work-from-home, work-from-the-office strategies. For others, it means reopening restaurants and retail stores. For others still, it means reopening service businesses. Little by little during the quarantine we have seen the economy slowly open up again and stores, malls, and more that have been dark for the past three months slowly stretch their legs and attempt to stand up.

This was important because it has been extremely hard for so many people during the past three months with no business or no work at all, and yet still have to sustain their needs. For micro to medium enterprises especially, this has been a constant challenge. Many want to keep their employees employed, but have already dipped dangerously into their savings just to make ends meet. We have all been challenged – and are still being challenged to – as Jack Ma put it – just survive.

So the economy is re-opening, with strict safety measures, as it is important for so many people. However, not everyone has been given the chance to go back to work. Public transportation drivers, like jeepney and tricycle drivers, have not yet fully been able to resume operations. Some tricycle drivers in certain municipalities are allowed to work, and according to the Palace, jeepney drivers can resume soon (whenever “soon” is) – but only some jeepney drivers with vehicles deemed “roadworthy”.

I think it’s been particularly harsh to keep jeepney drivers from earning a living. Many of them are struggling without ayuda and any form of help. Some have had to resort to begging, others now live in their vehicles with their family, with no means to pay rent, and others are protesting to convey their plight. We all know how that turned out. The poor Piston 6 ended up in jail and required viral upheaval to secure their release.

Sadly these are only the stories we hear about because they go viral online. I’m sure there are hundreds and hundreds of others. We need to find ways to help the poorest among us because unless we all rise together, we won’t rise at all. Many jeepney operators have already complied with the government’s requirements and added plastic barriers to create social distancing. This will slash passengers in half, but at this point, half is already so much better than nothing.

Unfortunately, that was still not enough to allow them to work their routes. Now drivers wait unknowingly whether they will be allowed to go back to work at all. It seems the government is dragging their heels when it comes to allowing jeepneys back on the road to push their much-debated jeepney modernization program, meaning only modern jeepneys may be allowed on the roads in the coming weeks ahead. If that’s the case, where does this leave hundreds and hundreds of other drivers? Out in the cold?

Officials have pushed the jeepney modernization program since 2016. They were supposed to give jeepney operators until the end of this year to comply and make changes. However, these changes would require them to stop using the vehicle they have and go into heavy debt (despite the proposed subsidy) to secure the new “modern” jeepney. I think it would be sad to lose the iconic jeepneys that have been associated with the country for so long. Maybe updating safety issues on existing jeepneys would have been a better solution, instead of phasing them out altogether. Modernization is not a bad thing after all, but we also don’t need to get rid of even more of our history and culture.

In either case, the pandemic hit, and the world turned upside down. In this time of uncertainty and survival, wouldn’t it be possible to shelve the modernization program until people get back on their feet? It doesn’t have to mean stopping it forever, it just means having compassion for so many Filipinos who just want to work to make ends meet in uncertain times.

Harry Roque has said that they are not capitalizing on the pandemic to push the modernization agenda, and that’s reassuring, but at the same time, perhaps showing compassion at this point is more prudent. After all, health officials all agree that open-air spaces (like jeepneys) are considered safer right now as opposed to small and enclosed air-conditioned spaces. There was even a suggestion online to make the benches in a jeepney back-to-back with plastic dividers so that people would be able to breath out the window, instead of facing each other. That could be worth exploring.

In the end, I hope we can find a fair and compassionate way to move forward. Again, modernization is not a bad goal, but as everyone has said, no one could predict our current situation and right now, compassion and empathy should take the lead until we all can come out on the other side.

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