In ECQ 'bubble', checkpoints for commuter safety harm hard-up drivers

Franco Luna - Philstar.com
In ECQ 'bubble', checkpoints for commuter safety harm hard-up drivers
Police officers screen motorists and commuters passing the border of Bulacan and Caloocan in San Jose Del Monte on the first day of Implementation of a renewed lockdown or enhanced community quarantine on Monday, March 29, 2021.
The STAR / Michael Varcas

MANILA, Philippines (Updated 10:03 a.m., April 1) — Dasmariñas jeepney driver Cesar Javinal, 55, has spent the better part of the last 20 years of his life behind the wheel of a jeepney, or the King of the Road as it is popularly referred to in the Philippines. He started in his thirties and has not known any other way to provide for his four children since then. 

"My life was comfortable before coronavirus. My family was so happy," he told Philstar.com in Filipino in a phone call. "I would bring home at least P800 every day." 

That was back when his jeep was permitted to carry up to 20 passengers sans barriers and restrictions.

Now under President Rodrigo Duterte's second enhanced community quarantine, Javinal's jeep only serves four at a time, with each passenger paying P9 and sitting one seat apart. Any more than that and drivers along his route in Cavite are penalized in the endless checkpoints in Imus, Bacoor, and Dasmariñas. 

As a result, drivers avoid checkpoints like the plague. On the third day of ECQ, Javinal brought home P250 for his family. He said it was one of the better days in the pandemic. "Riding is torture now because of the tight restrictions." 

More than 9,000 police personnel have been deployed to man the 1,106 quarantine control points within the so-called 'NCR Plus' bubble to strictly implement protocols amid the ECQ and uniform curfew.

On his way home on Wednesday, Javinal said he encountered a police officer who screamed at him to raise his face shield. The armed cop used a yantok stick to gesture at him. "He was arrogant. What they're doing is so strict, so aggressive," he said. "I can't really do anything about it since they're the police." 

Like that of the national government's other quarantine protocols, enforcement is overzealous and heavy-handed.

Fully-armed cops in drab camouflage board buses to check passengers one by one. They check passengers for physical distancing, face mask-wearing, and identification cards. If any of these are found lacking on the part of passengers, it is PUV drivers — many of whom only earn P200 on lucky days — who are ticketed and fined P2,000.

"If a passenger takes off his face mask, the driver has to pay for it. They tell us we shouldn't have let them ride in the first place," Javinal said. 

READ: Back to 'disiplina'? On second day of ECQ, stories of power-tripping enforcers

Drivers staying at home instead

One secretary of a transport service cooperative operating on the outskirts of the bubble spoke to Philstar.com on the condition of anonymity and said that the fear of getting slapped with bogus violations coupled with the losses incurred by taking in just 50% capacity — the limit imposed by minimum health standards — was enough to force drivers to just stay at home, leading to a crisis for commuters. 

On paper, the half capacity imposed by the national government might conceivably still be enough for a profit. However, the transport leader said that for smaller vehicles, "It's not even just 50%. Once the barriers are there, those are the only slots passengers can take. If we follow all of the protocols and put up the plastic barriers, the space feels more like 30% capacity."

"That's not enough to buy food for their families. They only bring home enough for rice."

Yet, they said, "some of them are forced to drive anyway because they don't have other jobs. That's all they know, and all other establishments are closed. So they go on."

For some reason, the transport leader said, the enforcers seem to be most strict at rush hour, when passenger volume is high and commuters cram into jeepneys as they try to head home before curfew.

Javinal experienced this himself, saying police and traffic enforcers seemed to work in tandem. Along his route from Dasmarinas to Zapote in Las Pinas, he says, police would pull jeepneys over at checkpoints, and when an opportunity presents itself, they call over to enforcers to write tickets. 

"One of our drivers had just five barriers in his jeepney. They still stopped him at a checkpoint and said there was 'no distancing' because all five slots were loaded. All the passengers were wearing masks and face shields," the co-op official said.  

The co-op leader added that the enforcers in their area favored drivers they already knew. "The ones they know, their pals, that's how it is. If it's their friends, the police won't pull them over."

517 apprehended from January to February

According to the Inter-Agency Council on Traffic, from January to February alone, exactly 517 PUV drivers were apprehended by its enforcers for breach of health measures. This number doesn't include other operators penalized by local governments or enforcers of the Land Transportation Office. 

On its official Facebook page, the I-ACT proudly boasts videos of enforcers, sometimes armed, barking at passengers and drivers inside tight buses or jeeps to comply with health protocols. 

After the first day of ECQ alone, the PNP disclosed that nearly 2,600 were arrested for various quarantine violations across Metro Manila, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, and Rizal.

"It's the fear that's keeping them home because they're already not earning, but if they get caught, they have to give up P2,000," Javinal said. 

RELATED: Nearly a month into GCQ, gov't uncertain on jeepney's fate

Not just transport workers

Others who are caught supposedly violating distancing rules are made to force passengers to alight and look for another ride in a quarantine with hardly any PUVs accommodating commuters. 

The ripple effect affects commuters too. Much like 2020's iteration of the ECQ, the same transportation woes marred the past week, plaguing commuters earlier on in the pandemic. Many were left stranded and unable to find rides in transportation hubs, and major thoroughfares were left congested amid the slow-moving checkpoints. 

"We've noticed that PUV drivers are very particular now about the 'Seven Commandments' of public transportation. In fact, we're having to accost fewer operators today," DOTr Assistant Secretary Manuel Gonzales, who heads the I-ACT, said in a statement issued through the department's Facebook page on Wednesday.

"What we're doing is we have the excess passengers alight and look for other transportation. Then we issue a warning that what they're doing is prohibited," he also said. 

The traffic chief — who earlier vowed to "show no leniency to PUV drivers who fail to implement health protocols aboard their unit at the expense of their passengers’ lives" — is among the many former military generals littered in key roles throughout the Duterte administration and its pandemic response. 

Police figures noted that on the first day of ECQ, 57% of vehicles plying the streets were private motorists, versus just 39% of PUVs for commuters — a figure that does not bode well for the 88% of households in Metro Manila that do not own private vehicles. 

Metro Manila police in its own assessment of the first day of ECQ also recommended that enforcers "document or take photos of medical certificates" of medical certificates and other APOR papers that they suspect to be fake, which could only further slow down the process at checkpoints. 

RELATED: Traffic body vows stricter enforcement of pandemic protocols on public transport

Photo shows a ticket one jeepney driver received by an enforcer for not implementing distancing in the same unit he was driving.

Prone to abuse

Pagkakaisa ng mga Manggagawa sa Transportasyon convenor Dante Lagman said many drivers in the network have already reported harassment from enforcers. 

"For us, this ECQ, while it is now necessary because of the criminal negligence of the Duterte admin to let it drag on, was an instrument to let them take advantage of the people," Lagman told Philstar.com in a text message in Filipino. 

"These random checks, or even if they check everyone, are prone to abuse and have no compassion for the situations of our drivers."

He added: "The abuse has always been part of how enforcers do their jobs. They treat drivers like milking cows."

He said that that he cannot say that the abuse has gotten worse, but things are certainly not better.

Compassion urged

The Move as One transport coalition in a letter addressed to Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade urged "compassionate rather than punitive approaches to enforcement" and called for an end to the internal checkpoints that they said only worsen the traffic situation within the bubble.  

"The use of harsh measures by the police and traffic enforcers only underscores that the government is insensitive to the plight of Filipinos who are forced to crowd into scarce public transport or who cannot afford to buy face masks or shields," the letter penned by transport economist Robert Siy said. 

"The emphasis on penalizing PUV drivers and operators has the unintended effect of reducing public transport availability, worsening the already difficult public transport situation."

Philstar.com sought Gonzales for comment on the criticisms of the council's enforcement, but he has yet to respond as of this post.

Until the coronavirus situation subsides, the 55-year-old Javinal says he's considering taking up side jobs as a construction worker. 

"At this age, I'm probably too old for this," he says. "But I have to do it for my family." 

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