Surrendering to experimentations

BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa (The Philippine Star) - September 15, 2020 - 12:00am

More jeepneys and buses are back on the streets! For many members of the working class who still hold on to jobs, this could mean ending days of long treks to and from work. Yet, with the new normal guidelines, this may not be a simple case.

Commuters may not necessarily be averse to standing or sitting closer to each other inside a jeepney or bus under the new rules released by the Department of Transportation (DOTr), but public utility vehicle operators may find the new economics difficult to accept.

To be allowed to operate at about 50 percent capacity while not permitted to raise fares may be an uneconomically attractive proposition, especially for drivers who earn their daily wage from a boundary system that works only by packing passengers sardine-style during rush hours.

Include in the new equation the cost of regular disinfection and sanitation, and the whole proposition could turn out to be a futile opportunity to earn money even with the currently lower price of fuels. The same math may equally apply to train operations.

It’s still early days, though, and with the government bent on revving the economy back on track, a concessionary increase in fare rates may be the next move to keep public utility vehicles (PUVs) running as long as infection rates remain controlled.

Modified social distancing rules

The other issue in opening up public transportation under the new normal guidelines dictated by the DOTr is the adoption of modified social distancing rules that go beyond what many of the COVID-19 epidemiologist prescribe.

Early last month, the DOTr allowed a limited return of PUVs as long as commuters wore facemasks AND face shields while maintaining a distance of one meter from each other. Commuters were also discouraged to talk to one another or to make a call on their mobile phones. Passengers standing at the aisles were also not allowed to face each other. With still a limited number of jeepneys and buses allowed to operate, this did not raise too much concern.

But now, the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) is opening more routes and allowing more PUVs to operate, and the DOTr is allowing passengers to be in closer proximity with each other.

Dr. Edsel Salvaña, an infectious disease doctor from the Philippine General Hospital, has reportedly been critical of the DOTr’s modified social distancing rule in PUVs, which now stands at a minimum of 0.75 meters from the previous one meter.

Science debate

Dr. Salvaña cites that the recognized definition by global epidemiologists of an acceptable social distance continues to be one meter apart, and any closer proximity after 15 minutes becomes a case of “close contact” that would risk catching the virus from someone infected.

He quotes from a scientific paper that physical distancing is a pillar in the control of the coronavirus, and not an optional choice, even with the use of face shields and facemasks.

The DOTr, however, is confident that it can shave off centimeters from the defined one-meter distancing standard, and still keep virus transmission at bay with strict observance of face shield-and-facemask use.

The DOTr’s call may also be an offshoot of pronouncements last week by the famed University of the Philippines-based OCTA Research Team that the country is “flattening the curve” of COVID-19 cases, although adding that the public should still guard from being complacent.

More information campaigns

While the science of wearing a face shield with facemask is not yet grounded in any scientific study as an effective deterrent to the spread of coronavirus when less standard social distancing measurements are observed in enclosed spaces, it is an accepted effective practice among health practitioners inside hospitals or nursing homes.

There, the use of face shields and facemasks are governed by strict use, reuse (if applicable), and disposal. Health professionals, for example, are not supposed to touch the exposed side of face shields that may have been contaminated by virulent COVID-19 particles.

This is not something that many Filipinos are aware of, and bringing home a contaminated face shield that is not immediately properly washed and put away may become a source of infection. In the same way, many Filipinos still incorrectly use facemasks, sometimes exposing their nostrils while talking with others.

The government must improve on its public information campaigns on the proper use of face shields and facemasks while continuing with tough enforcement of such.

Guinea pigs

Sometimes, it feels like we have become guinea pigs in a global laboratory that has been exposed to a deadly virus. Until a vaccine is found, we can only surrender to these “experimental” measures by our governments in trying to balance the health of our community with the need to continue being economically productive.

We understand that our government is trying to allow more passengers inside PUVs to help drivers and operators earn some money without having to raise fares, which would be painful for commuters who are also equally having a difficult time.

And yes, we also understand that should this experiment give rise to a steep spike in weekly infections, a pullback on current quarantine measures could readily be announced, just the same way as many other countries are currently doing with their own unique virus containment calibrations.

It’s been a tiring six months, but like those laboratory guinea pigs, we just have to keep going. Continue to stay safe, everyone.

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