Back again: Traffic and drug trafficking

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

In a bid to stop the spread here of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, we have seen how hard lockdown and quarantine measures churned out both desirable and undesirable results more than a year and a half since then. One desirable outcome of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) that we have seen first hand is how it has literally cleared traffic jams all over Metro Manila.

However, it was rather by a fortuitous event that the daily traffic gridlock was solved immediately. The ECQ – or euphemism for hard lockdown – was one of the bitter pills that the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID) forced down upon us from among the anti-COVID responses implemented by the national government since the outbreak in March last year.

The usual bottlenecks, especially during rush hours around Metro Manila and other highly urbanized parts of the Philippines have notably vanished for quite a long while. It was during the prolonged ECQ periods, in particular at the National Capital Region (NCR), or the greater Metro Manila area where the government banished all public transportation vehicles.

With bicycles becoming the chief means of going around at the height of ECQ, designated bike lanes sprouted all over Metro Manila to enhance safety on the road for both bikers and motorists as well.

We also have seen more and more motorcycles on the roads. The motorcycles have become the major transport vehicle for deliveries of food, grocery, online shopping and other e-commerce trade activities. Thus, the motorcycle traffic of goods has invariably been growing all over the NCR and other areas even under quarantine restrictions. Before the pandemic, undisciplined motorcycle riders weaving in-and-out of traffic lanes pose major bane to motorists on the road, aside from being most prone to self-accidents.

During the hard lockdown period, only private owned cars, food trucks/vans, ambulances/emergency and government-owned vehicles were allowed to ply the roads. The Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) temporarily suspended its number-coding scheme. The MMDA, along with the Land Transportation Office (LTO) and the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) – both under the Department of Transportation (DOTr) – are members of the IATF that implemented and enforced the anti-COVID safety protocols for limited operations of all public utility vehicles (PUV). It was in fact, the DOTr that required the wearing of face shields on top of facemasks by all public commuters.

Then came the surge of COVID-19 cases due to the more infectious and more transmissible foreign mutations from Alpha to Delta variants. Daily tally reached five-digit numbers to as high as 26,303 confirmed COVID cases on Sept.11.

The IATF, however, acknowledged the deep impact of lockdowns to the country’s socio-economic well being and people. With the approval of President Duterte, the IATF reverted starting last month to the original “granular” lockdown or quarantine measures and left entirely to the DOH the determination of “Alert Level” system.

Thankfully, the counter measures to stop the pandemic and the arrival in greater bulks of anti-COVID vaccines have apparently been slowing down the spread of the deadly virus. In fact, the Department of Health (DOH) reported yesterday the “lowest” tally of 4,496 cases of COVID-19 infection all over the country. It was in July this year that the DOH last recorded daily cases below 5,000.

Lately, we have seen the positive outcome of the “pilot-testing” at the NCR of the “Alert Level” system. For a month now, a greater number of NCR residents are back to work; malls seeing the return of consumers to the stores, etc. The DOTr announced last Monday it would recommend to the IATF an increase in the passenger capacity of PUVs to cope with the noted increase of passengers after Metro Manila now placed under Alert Level 3 up to Oct. 31. The DOTr move is also seen to aid PUV drivers and operators struggling with soaring fuel prices that have been increasing for the past eight weeks now.

There is now the more palpable return of traffic of vehicles and movement of people going to work and outside their homes.

If the Metro Manila Mayors will not be reversed by President Duterte, they unanimously approved yesterday easing the restriction for minors. The minors can now go outdoors for “essential” travels. But the minors are required to be accompanied by their parents or guardians.

With the Christmas season that starts early in the Philippines, mall areas will have the usual traffic jams along EDSA and other shopping areas at the NCR. While it has been suspended indefinitely, the MMDA might be constrained to re-impose the number-coding scheme sooner than later.

The more troubling situation though is the apparent unperturbed lucrative business of illegal drug trafficking that fester in our country, with or without COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of tapering off, there seems to be a reinvigoration of these criminal syndicates into these nefarious illegal drugs trafficking here in our country. Just last Monday, four Chinese nationals were killed in a reported shootout with anti-drug operatives and the recovery of some P262 million worth of shabu in Barangay Pulong Cacutud in Pampanga.

Philippine Drugs Enforcement Agency (PDEA) Director-General Wilkins Villanueva explained in the past many of these big amounts of shabu they have busted were most likely brought into the country using speedboats that picked them up from ships in international waters. How else can the PDEA explain their claims having dismantled shabu laboratories in the country and only “kitchen-type” operators remain active?

Are these drug syndicates back with a vengeance now that the outgoing administration of President Duterte has less than a year into office? Do we have such huge market for shabu users? We could only wonder.

Traffic jams and drug trafficking, to quote the blurb of “Poltergeist II,” the sequel of popular scary ghost Hollywood movie: “They’re back.”

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