Palace: Still no to jeepneys; idled drivers can be contact tracers
MANILA, Philippines — Despite commuter woes, the government has no immediate plans of allowing jeepneys back on the road, but is looking into giving jeepney drivers alternative means of livelihood, such as hiring them as contact tracers, according to presidential spokesperson Harry Roque.
Roque also said the government was looking into reconfiguring the jeepneys’ seating arrangement, insisting that the current facing benches did not allow physical distancing, the reason these public utility vehicles were not allowed to resume operations under general community quarantine in Metro Manila.
“It’s not [on] the immediate horizon because it’s almost a physical impossibility to have social distancing when passengers face each other in a jeepney,” Roque said when asked in a television interview when the jeepneys would be allowed to operate again.
But it’s a different thing for the so-called modern jeepneys—minibuses that have seats similar to regular buses.
“There are now modern jeepneys being deployed where the seating arrangement is similar to buses and I understand these kinds of modern jeepneys might be deployed sooner than later. The traditional face-to-face jeepney, out of the question for now,” Roque said.
The government loosened quarantine restrictions in Metro Manila starting Monday to allow more movement and business reopenings to start healing the economy ravaged by the new coronavirus outbreak.
But the absence of jeepneys left a gaping hole on the government’s plan to ferry workers on the metro and air-conditioned buses through the belt highway Edsa.
Jeepneys serve inner-city routes, many of which feed into Edsa. Without jeepneys, commuters cannot get to Edsa to take connecting rides, either on the metro or on buses, to their jobs along the beltway. They also cannot get to their jobs along routes not served by buses and the new minibuses, which do not run round the clock like jeepneys.
In addition to the metro and the Edsa buses, the government allowed taxis and ride-hailing services to operate, but these are too expensive for wage earners—the majority of workers in the metropolis.
Without their livelihood, hundreds of thousands of jeepney drivers whose families are going hungry are crying to be allowed back on the road.
Rent and deploy jeepneys
Roque said alternative livelihoods may be offered to jeepney drivers.
“There’s a suggestion that they be employed as contact tracers, because we do need about 120,000 of them and there’s only about 30,000 employed so far,” he said.
The Department of Health earlier said it needed more people to track down the contacts of COVID-19 patients.
Sen. Grace Poe has a suggestion to the government: rent the jeepneys and deploy them to major routes to solve the lack of public transportation.
The chair of the Senate public services committee also said the Department of Transportation should “directly subsidize” jeepney and bus drivers to help them recover from economic loss due to the three-month coronavirus lockdown.
“This will enable drivers [of buses and jeepneys] to comply with social distancing measures without sacrificing financial viability,” Poe said.
Official talk against the jeepney has led to suspicion among jeepney groups that the government is using the coronavirus epidemic to eliminate competition for what it insists on calling as modern jeepneys.
“This can only mean that the government will make permanent the deprivation of livelihood to 600,000 jeepney drivers and small operators nationwide who have not been working for three months,” George San Mateo, leader of the jeepney drivers and operators national group Piston, said in a statement on Wednesday.
“Instead of helping drivers return to their [jobs], what [the government is doing] is removing their primary means of livelihood, while depriving commuters and ordinary workers of a means to move around,” San Mateo said.
“This government is so antipoor and antipeople, antipublic transport and anticommuters,” he added.
San Mateo vowed to continue resisting the government’s moves to phase out the jeepney and “assert our democratic and constitutional rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly while observing physical distancing and other [public health measures].”
Obet Martin, president of Pasang Masda, one of the jeepney groups that managed to modernize before the new coronavirus outbreak, said his group was worried for its members who had not transitioned to the minibuses.
He said that because the minibuses comprise only 2 to 3 percent of the total number of jeepneys in the country, it is impossible for the few that are in Metro Manila to serve the more than 10 million workers in the metropolis.
Members of the group are hard-up because of the ban on jeepneys, he said, but they are willing to wait until June 21, when the government is expected to announce new plans for public transportation.
Meanwhile, Roque called on employers to implement work arrangements that would allow 50 percent of their employees to work from home.
Employers could also implement staggered work hours so that employees would not report for work or go home at the same time, he said.
Such arrangements would help reduce the number of commuters on the road at any one time, he said.
—With reports from Marlon Ramos and Krixia Subingsubing