When the pandemic is gone

Thomas M Orbos

IT has been more than a hundred days since the Luzon-wide lockdown was first implemented. Still, from all indications, this global tragedy is far from over. From the looks of it, life in Metro Manila as we live it right now will cross over to next year at the very least. It will do well then for us to get used to it and accept that our Metro Manila of tomorrow will be very much different from what we once knew.

And what kind of city life will we have here in the future?  Will it be the urban planner’s dream of green parks, bike lanes and wide avenues? Or will it be what is evolving now—empty parking spaces, unfinished buildings, and boarded up spaces of what were once barbershops, spas or restaurants?  It’s difficult to tell because as much as we want to believe in a resurrected urban landscape, much of the changes will require government spending that we cannot afford right now. In the same manner, the feeling of despair resulting from the sight of business closures will not last. We are a resilient lot. Human activity will survive, evolve and prosper though in a different way.

Our homes definitely will be reconfigured as much as all kinds of human activity—work, school, recreation—will be done here. Internet connectivity demand will spike as well, as with the other public utility services, such as electricity, water and waste management. Public attention to them will be at its highest. Residential usage will go up. Quality of service will be demanded, yet price increases will be heavily regulated. New home activities such as home exercise, home gardening and renewed interest in home cooking will emerge, which will also fuel new commercial attention.

Sad to say but this pandemic will lead to the discouragement of any physical activity requiring physical mass interaction. Hence, malls, churches, stadiums and even central business districts will have to pivot in a big way to remain relevant. Aside from going online, spreading their activities 24/7 might be a solution to spread daytime concentration. This will not be hard to do in our country where we are used to such activities because of our BPOs.

But there will be a resurgence of the community. Communal commercial activity will flourish, as people will feel safer closer to their homes. The corner store and bakery will have a shot in the arm. The village barbershops, parlors and spas will survive but as home services.  People will be more comfortable with services done at their homes and with people they are more or less familiar with. The nearby restaurants will do home deliveries. The village market will go back to the pre-mall days, although social distancing will still be enforced. Weekend open air markets will be a staple in most cities in Metro Manila, with a lot of new entrants made up of entrepreneurs pivoting from their old but maybe now irrelevant occupations.

On the road, public transportation will unfortunately be adversely affected. Although most of the buses, jeepneys, and taxis will be allowed to run, these will be in far less numbers because of the public’s apprehension of the infection as well as the economic viability to operate public transport on a 50 percent capacity. Even rail commuting will be affected because of this very same reason. Globally, rail commuting has gone down.  In fact, our government would do well to rethink about proceeding with the unfinished rail projects. Maybe it’s better to just use part of the budget to help the transport industry to pivot, such as the ones in the jeepney and UV sectors. On the other hand, traffic will remain, though not as bad as the pre-Covid gridlocks. This will be because of the commuters’ shift to other modes of individual transport such as bicycles, motorcycles and even private vehicles, mostly entry-level bantam cars driven by social distancing people who fear virus infection.

Cities will survive, as history tells us, but they will evolve and adjust to the call of the times.   Metro Manila will be no different. We, then, as Metro Manilans, need to embrace this situation, demand the services that will enhance our survivability, and in the process, also actively participate in the evolution of the metropolis. We shape the Metro Manila that we want for our future.

Next week’s continuation of this article: Post-Covid private and public infrastructure changes in Metro Manila.

Thomas “Tim” Orbos was formerly with the DOTr and the MMDA. He has completed his graduate studies at the McCourt School of Public Policy of Georgetown University and is an alumnus of the MIT Sloan School of Management. He can be reached via e-mail at thomas_orbos@sloan.mit.edu

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