Transport amid the novel coronavirus outbreak

Thomas M Orbos

IN my previous column, I discussed about the threat of the novel coronavirus to the global economy and suggested how our government should confront this. That was just a week ago, and yet it is a far cry to where the situation is right now with an increase of infections and deaths to more than double than last week’s. Understandably, the global community is reacting to the threat. More and more countries, including the Philippines, are enforcing travel restrictions to and from China recognizing the exponential rate of increase of the virus.

A reason for this phenomenon is the stubbornness of the strain, which can survive outside its host for a few hours and can be infectious anywhere from 3 to 6 feet from someone coughing or sneezing who is infected. Its gestation period also lasts up to 10 days before any symptom can occur. Hence the difficulty of detection.

But one major factor that made this epidemic immediately widespread is the ease of global modern transport. With modern travel  more extensive and more affordable for both passengers and cargo, the spread of the virus has penetrated almost all corners of the globe. Modern transport may be the catalyst for progress and development for our times but it has, as proven by these events, been the cause of our  setback and, God forbid, of our tragedy.

As it is a major contributory factor, then efforts must be made not only by our transport regulators but all of us in general to help in the containment of the virus, beyond just travel restrictions. Besides, banning travel to and from infected countries, though needed and effective at this point, is at most interim in nature. There is a need to review our travel practices in the long term, and not just travel regulations. A look at how we behave and how we view travel and transport needs is needed, and, if need be, to be reviewed and changed.

Indeed, beyond travel restrictions, government needs to begin looking at implementing basic measures to curtail the spread of a disease. It’s good that the monitoring and thermal scanning of passengers are being implemented more aggressively at all ports of entry. And also commendable is the reminder from the LTFRB on basic hygiene handling by transport operators. But definitely there are more that can be done and these need not be cost intensive. A call to operators to orient them on the dispensation of the required protocol in such a situation is proper at this point in time. Transport operators need to know what to look out for and what to do in case they are confronted with passengers that may have the symptoms of this infectious disease.  Moreover, preventive measures are needed.  General hygiene in all transport vehicles and terminals—something that is currently lacking—need to be emphasized. Cleanliness of toilets, for one, in all terminal stations need to be maintained, with running water, soap and alcohol provided for free.  The transport of goods, especially perishables like fresh meat and vegetables, need to adhere to the globally acceptable standards. It may be high time to consider requiring proper refrigeration of these goods and discourage backyard farm-to-market transport.  Blast-freezing facilities, if the government cannot afford it, need to be encouraged with incentives for the private sector to come in. Last, we need to do our part as commuters by being conscious of our own health and hygiene while we travel—remember that we can infect as much as we can be infected.

History tells us that,  just like SARS, MERS and other similar outbreaks, the 2019-nCoV will come to pass. But there lies also a long overdue wake-up call.  The way we look at transport­—how governments regulate and operators operate—plus how we as individual commuters behave need to change. The state of transport globally will never be the same again after the novel coronavirus. It is, therefore, imperative that we, as individual commuters, also change our transport behavior and do our part.

Thomas “Tim” Orbos was formerly with the Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority. He has taken further studies at  the McCourt School of Public Policy of Georgetown University  and the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He can be reached via e-mail at thomas_orbos@sloan.mit.edu.

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