Passing through Katipunan Avenue near the UP campus, one would see a number of jeepney drivers huddled together, waving their handmade signs asking for financial assistance from passing motorists. With their old jeepneys parked nearby, these men—like other groups of jeepney drivers all over Metro Manila—have been out of work since the lockdown started almost five months ago. They were forced to resort to begging for themselves and their families.
One of them is 64 years old Lauro Avila, who was featured in my radio program, “Usapang Kalye” (Street Talk). Lauro narrated how desperate their situation has become, with some of his fellow drivers and their families forced to live in their jeepneys as they had been thrown out of their rented houses. During pre-Covid times, life was a day-to-day struggle for these drivers. With the pandemic, their situation has gotten worse. That’s why they are begging the government to be allowed to ply their routes. As things stand, however, they fear that this is the end of the road for jeepneys. The government has given them up to the end of the year to convert to modern jeepneys, something that they definitely cannot afford, more so during this pandemic. It is indeed heart-rending to hear their plight, even in these times of unprecedented hardships that we are all experiencing.
From their point of view, it does seem to be the road to perdition. While other forms of public transport such as buses, taxis, and even tricycles have resumed operations, the jeepneys, in particular the “old jeepneys,” are still prohibited from plying their routes, except for some routes that were opened up lately. Based on recent government pronouncements, it is likely that their resumption of operations will not be happening soon. No specific reason had been given for the decision not allowing these vehicles to operate. Scheduled dates for their routes to be opened were moved several times. The decision is purportedly for safety reasons because old jeepneys are configured to allow more points of contact among passengers, hence the danger of infections. This, however, had been disputed no less by some members of the academe and the medical community. They pointed out that jeepneys at the very least allow the free flow of air, critical to controlling the virus in a confined environment, unlike their modern air-conditioned counterparts. Moreover, jeepney operators have shown their willingness to adhere to safety protocols in order for them to be allowed to operate.
To be fair, the government, on the other hand, is not deaf to their plight. A bundle of assistance has been earmarked for the sector from the Bayanihan Act, amounting to P5 billion. This is on top of the programmed financial aid that has been dispensed in the past four years. Included are the subsidies that had been doubled to P160,000, not to mention a preferential terms of payment from government financial institutions offered only to the jeepney sector. In addition, training programs are also available, with emphasis on alternative livelihood for those who will be left out of the modernization program. Never has any administration provided as much assistance to this sector.
It can be argued that the government cannot just concentrate appropriating from its dwindling resources to support this sector. A recent survey showed that 45 percent of our adult population are now unemployed. The jeepney drivers are more fortunate in a way. For the majority of the affected citizenry, there is no defined financial package from the government and no media hype as well to highlight their plight.
But these jeepney drivers are not asking for dole outs. These drivers just want to have a fighting chance to survive. And this they can do by being allowed to do their only means of livelihood. It may be that this is indeed their road to perdition—not just because of the pandemic but because, from all angles, it would seem that the deadline to modernize will not be postponed anymore. But if this were their fate, they would prefer doing it driving their vehicles to the very end and have a chance to survive. The least that we can do is to give them our support.
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 email@example.com