Cautious
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - June 9, 2020 - 12:00am

Even before the pandemic struck, our public transport system was a hazard to public health. It is as if it was designed to cram people tightly together and infuse them with noxious fumes.

As restrictions are relaxed, the restoration on public transport presents a dilemma to those charged with managing a pandemic. If caution is thrown to the wind and the public transport system is imprudently allowed to operate, it will become the main “vector” in the spread of infections. But the economy cannot be fully operational if employees have no means to get to work.

The DOTr and Secretary Tugade are charged with handling this difficult dilemma. They have moved on it with an abundance of caution.

When the metropolitan region shifted to “general community quarantine” last week, public transport was only partially restored. The trains were decongested. Only point-to-point buses operated. Tricycles could only ferry one passenger at a time. TNVS was allowed full play. Jeepneys were kept locked up ­-- even if their traditionally militant drivers were found protesting in the streets. 

Modern jeepneys might soon be allowed on the road. But the traditionally designed, back-loading versions will probably be the last to be restored.

Praised as an icon of “Filipino ingenuity,” the traditional jeepney is actually a textbook case for faulty transport design. It has the most inefficient passenger-to-motor ratio compounded by the fact that they are often badly maintained. Passengers sit knee-to-knee and sway right to left when the thing moves. They slam into each other on hard braking. Everyone is compelled to cling to the railings, making these devices ideal for transmitting viruses. 

Many passengers have lost their legs climbing down from the rear while another jeepney rams into them. Many have been injured or killed sticking their necks out of the sides. During the rush hours, we see passengers dangling from these vehicles, precariously stepping on running boards that appear to have been designed precisely to encourage this suicidal behavior.

The riding public, of course, is more concerned with convenience over infection. 

When restrictions on public transport were relaxed last week, it was expected that the supply of rides would be much lower than the demand. People were anxious to return to their jobs, run errand long postponed by quarantine and visit family.

Local governments and big corporations tried to address the situation by offering ferry services and free rides. But that would never be enough. It was intended never to be.

In principle, people should still be in quarantine, allowed to venture out only to do the most essential of things. The limited amount of public transport available assumed the operating principle. 

The DOTr did not miscalculate. On the contrary, it limited the supply of public transport precisely to make movement a challenge. 

Infection, let us not forget, continue to lurk.

Illicit

While the nation was on full lockdown, the highly organized criminal syndicates did not take a break. Law enforcement did not take a break either.

Last week, drug enforcement agencies raided a warehouse in Marilao that yielded a stunning P5.2 billion worth of crystal meth. Previous raids likewise yielded sumptuous stockpiles.

Traffickers of illicit cigarettes were not to be left behind.

On May 1, Bureau of Customs agents raided a warehouse at the Cabral Industrial Park and confiscated 280 master cases (140,000 packs) of assorted counterfeit cigarettes. On May 12, law enforcers raided a warehouse at the Global ASEANA Business Park in San Fernando, Pampanga. The raid yielded about 700 cases of cigarettes that had not paid the required duties.

On May 26, three Chinese nationals and four Filipino workers were arrested at an unregistered warehouse in Sta. Maria, Bulacan. Found at the warehouse was a large amount of fake cigarette brands. 

This particular operation led to follow-up raids in Naguillan and Alicia, Isabela. From this whole operation, Customs agents hauled in an estimated P2.3 billion in fake cigarettes, raw materials and counterfeit tax stamps.

During the month of April, law enforcement operations led to seizure of 1,275 master cases of illicit cigarettes. In addition, smuggled cigarettes were seized in Pagadian City. Just recently, the Port of Manila seized P17.8 million in fake cigarettes coming in from China.

All these recent seizures indicate the scale of criminal operations involved in trafficking illicit tobacco products. The imposition of truly punitive “sin taxes” make such trafficking profitable for the highly organized criminal syndicates behind them. The authorities know this and commit to unremitting enforcement actions to fight this scourge.

There is, of course, no health justification for consuming tobacco products. But the apparent surge in fake cigarette production, using substandard raw materials, magnified the adverse health impact of tobacco consumption.

For government, revenue from the “sin taxes” is important for funding Universal Health Care, especially in the face of the pandemic. The Department of Finance has cautioned the House of Representatives that the “stimulus package” being prepared by legislators may not be “fundable.” 

With the delay in the revenue collection schedules and the large subsidies for vulnerable sectors put out during the lockdown, government is running short of funds to effectively support the post-pandemic economic recovery. Full collection of the “sin taxes” has never been more important. 

Legitimate cigarette manufacturers have an obvious stake in the campaign to stop illicit trade in tobacco products. Smugglers and illicit manufacturers make easy money by evading taxation as well as quality controls. 

There is every reason, of course, to expect that the campaign against both smuggling and illicit manufacturing of tobacco products will be unremitting.

PUBLIC TRANSPORT SYSTEM
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