The government has approved a plan to increase the number of riders in mass transport vehicles by reducing the physical distance between commuters, even though health officials are still reporting thousands of new COVID-19 infections daily.
The new policy, approved by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF), is clearly the handiwork of the Department of Transportation (DOTR), with Transport Secretary Arthur Tugade emphasizing the need to “safely optimize the carrying capacity” of public transport vehicles given that more employees are expected to return to their jobs as more industries resume their operations.
Tugade said his department is “receptive to an initial optimization of the physical distancing measure in public transport vehicles to .75 meters among commuters beginning Sept. 14.
This will “further be optimized to 0.5 meters after two weeks and to 0.3 meters after another two weeks," Tugade added.
Tugade argues that current health measures, such as the mandatory use of face masks and face shields meant that the one-meter physical distancing measure can be relaxed.
The chief implementer of the government’s plan against COVID-19, Secretary Carlito Galvez, said “optimizing” physical distance among passengers would help ease transportation woes among commuters.
"With public transportation, there is faster recovery of lives and livelihoods as we push forward under the new normal,” Galvez said.
As the economy reels from the effects of the pandemic, this sentiment is understandable but could quickly become self-defeating if the number of COVID-19 cases begins to rise as a result.
To date, physical distancing has been a key component of most efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 around the world, along with good hygiene and hand washing and the use of face masks. Health experts—including those from the World Health Organization (WHO)--believe this combination, and not just one component, face masks, can stop the spread of a highly contagious disease.
The notion that we can safely and gradually cut back from the WHO-prescribed one-meter distance down to one foot would be ludicrous, if it weren’t so potentially dangerous.
In fact, a former adviser to the IATF describes the public transportation plan as reckless.
Dr. Anthony Leachon said the one-meter physical distance between individuals is the bedrock of preventing virus transmission, and that wearing a face mask or face shield is just a complement to this basic preventive measure.
He added that the DOTR seemed to be working at cross-purposes from the Department of Health, which mandates the one-meter distance based on the WHO standard.
“This [policy] will be risky, reckless, counter-intuitive and will derail the flattening of the curve in the National Capital Region, which will... affect the entire Philippines. We have flattened the curve, but that is not completely irreversible. We will cause [a] resurgence of cases if we are reckless,” he warned.
The newly approved policy also suggests a careless disregard for the safety of working men and women who have no choice but to take public transportation. Is it all right for them to be only a foot apart so long as the government officials who make the rules don’t need to sit beside them?