SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - September 16, 2020 - 12:00am

The general manager of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, Jojo Garcia, pointed out the inconsistency of the move: you require one-meter distancing as commuters line up for a ride on the light railway services. And then, once in the trains, the distancing rule is reduced to 0.75 meters.

Public health advocate Dr. Anthony Leachon calls the move “counterintuitive.”

The medical groups that called for a “timeout” say it is downright dangerous for public health. The University of the Philippines OCTA Research team, which only recently reported the flattening of COVID transmission after six long and difficult months, is strongly opposing the move. The team points out that while there are debates on the effectivity of face masks and shields in preventing coronavirus transmission, the usefulness of physical distancing for avoiding infection is undisputed.

Mass transportation is particularly problematic, because people can sit close to each other for more than 15 minutes – the minimum exposure time it takes for you to catch the coronavirus from an infected person.

What’s the fuss over an increased proximity of just 0.25 meters?

Fr. Nicanor Austriaco of the University of Sto. Tomas, who is part of OCTA Research, explained to “The Chiefs” on OneNews / TV5 last Monday that the seemingly insignificant reduction in distancing means more passengers in a train or bus, more droplets in an unfiltered and air-conditioned space, and consequently greater chances of infection.

*      *      *

But the additional passengers is precisely what the proponents of the move want, as the economy continues its gradual reopening and more people who need public transportation return to work.

The obvious question is, why not just field more mass transport vehicles? Garcia said proponents of the move explained that public transport operators no longer wanted to field additional units because the distancing rules made their operations financially unviable.

This is true for the Light Rail and Metro Rail Transit lines, buses, and practically all modes of public transport: the more passengers, the greater the earnings.

But we’re in an unprecedented public health crisis, and there are other concerns apart from turning a reasonable profit – foremost of which is preventing the further spread of the killer coronavirus.

If economic recovery is the objective, wouldn’t it be better to spread it around? There are still many public utility vehicle drivers and operators who remain barred from resuming their livelihoods. Some PUV drivers have been reduced to begging in the streets. They are raring to recover and ply their routes again, even with limited passengers.

This is what OCTA Research and other opponents of the scheme are suggesting: maintain the one-meter minimum physical distancing while allowing more PUVs to return to the streets.

*      *      *

In defense of the scheme, Dr. Edsel Salvana of the Philippine General Hospital points out that there is still no definitive study on the impact on COVID transmission of relaxing distancing rules in public transport.

Salvana is the director of the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the National Institutes of Health in UP Manila. He is also an adviser to the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases. He told us on Monday night, as President Duterte met with IATF members, that in the absence of a definitive word on the issue, we would just have to monitor the impact on COVID contagion of the easing of distancing.

Several doctors agree with Salvana and say people should just strictly observe other health protocols when commuting.

Opponents of the move, which was implemented beginning Sept. 14, ask why commuters should be turned into guinea pigs when there is an alternative, which is to field more PUVs and trains.

Metro Manila mayors reportedly want consistency in government policies on distancing. A common concern is how the reduction of distancing in public transport will affect health safety habits that have already been formed (with great difficulty) over the past six months. If it’s OK to sit closer together in the LRT and MRT, why observe the one-meter minimum distancing in supermarkets, churches, shopping malls?

Critics have also noted that the distancing rule is being eased in public transport at the same time that the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) is pushing for a sweeping ban on home quarantine even for mild and asymptomatic COVID cases, ostensibly because physical distancing and isolation are difficult to observe at home.

*      *      *

Proponents say other countries have begun easing distancing restrictions in public transport. But countries such as China did so after COVID transmission went down significantly.

In our country, OCTA Research saw the COVID transmission curve flattening recently, but it’s early days yet and the trend has to be sustained.

Yesterday, DILG Secretary Eduardo Año said the IATF was not consulted on the move. Año and Health Secretary Francisco Duque III are reportedly against the easing of the distancing requirement.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque Jr., on the other hand, insisted that the IATF was consulted, and no one raised objections when the matter was tackled. The Department of Transportation, which is implementing the move, also maintained that it was cleared with the IATF.

Duterte, when presented with the controversy on Monday night, asked for more specifics, which he is expected to get within the week. So the easing of the distancing rule might still be withdrawn and deferred.

By that time, however, coronavirus transmission might have already occurred as commuters move closer to each other in public transport.

  • Latest
  • Trending
Are you sure you want to log out?
Login is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with