Welcome to Inquirer Mobility


Back when we were in elementary school, our science teachers took pains to teach us the Scientific Method. Remember that rigid step-by-step process of asking the question, doing research, constructing a hypothesis, testing the hypothesis by doing experiments, analyzing data and finally reporting the results to see if the hypothesis was correct? This process has been the backbone of every major problem solving situation not only in science, but in our everyday lives. We basically grew up with this process ingrained in our minds. 

The role of science has never been more important in recent times than with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a newly discovered virus, nearly everyone relied on science to know how the virus spread and how to avoid getting infected. Even the new normal practices we do now like social distancing, wearing of face masks and face shields have scientific studies to back these up. 

On September 7 however, the Inter-Agency task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) adopted the recommendation of the Economic Development Council (EDC) and the Department of Transportation (DOTr) to reduce passenger social distance requirements. The objective of this measure is to increase ridership through the optimization of space between passengers inside the different modes of public transportation available such as the MRT and LRT, buses, PUVs, even airplanes and sea vessels. 

The new IATF-EID directive calls for the reduction of physical distancing standards every two weeks. Starting September 14, the new distancing gap between two people in public transportation has been reduced from 1 meter to 0.75 meters. It will be down to 0.5 meters on 28 September 2020 and then 0.3 meters by 12 October 2020. The DOTr and various transportation providers have revised markings and guides inside public transportation for the guidance of commuters. So now, more people can be squeezed inside trains and buses with standing now allowed. 

But like some notable, and highly questionable, economic recovery measures adopted by the government recently, the question on how and on what basis these measures came about begs to be asked. So, where is the science?

The scientific method states that there should be a question that needs to be asked. In this case, how do we restart the economy properly given the still prevalent spread of COVID-19? Research follows. How did other countries who have successfully contained the spread of COVID-19 manage to do this? 

Constructing a hypothesis is next. In our case, transporting more people will allow the economy to restart faster while maintaining a semblance of physical distancing and the use of protective equipment will contain the spread of the virus. 

The next step is where we have a problem though. It entails testing the hypothesis or experimenting. 

Testing this hypothesis involves finding out if reducing the physical distancing requirements in public transport will help in 1) economic recovery, and  in 2)  not increasing the rate of infection and spread of COVID-19 in the populace. However, testing a hypothesis using the lives of the commuting public, like what we have now is not ideal. We will be potentially and even deliberately exposing workers and commuters to greater risk. 

In a cabinet meeting broadcast late Monday night, Secretary Carlito Galvez, Jr.,  Chief Implementer of the COVID-19 National Task Force said that it is a matter of risk management. 

“If we reduce the 1 meter to .75 (meter), mayroon po tayong gagawin na risk-mitigation.” He further explains that as a manager, being risk-averse is not ideal. And that the DOTr has conducted simulations on the physical aspects of increasing the ridership capacity of public transportation. The DOTr in its press release did mention that they conducted simulations on the physical capacity of the vehicles to accommodate reduced distancing through simulation. It did not however mention if there was no, or any difference, in the rate of transmission of the disease. 

Secretary Galvez further explains that if people were not allowed to talk, eat, or remove face masks while riding in public transportation, as well as by isolating individuals positive with COVID-19 and preventing them from commuting, then public transportation would be safe. “Once we isolate the positive, nakikita po nating magiging safe ang transport natin,” claims the Secretary. 

But these are all big IFs. In a country where physical distancing of 1 meter, wearing of masks, and preventing kids and seniors from leaving their houses are loosely enforced, how can the government expect compliance with this latest round of protocols in public transportation and still ensure the safety of the riding public?

Secretary Galvez even adds in the COVID-19 update meeting with President Duterte, “Ang nakikita rin po natin based sa study, mas delikado rin po yung mga private cars dahil kasi air-conditioned.” The Chief Implementer of COVID-19 plans and policies implying that riding alone in a private car, versus sharing a confined space with people you do not even know is safer during a pandemic. Let that sink in for a moment. 

Fortunately, in that same meeting, the Secretary of Health, Francisco Duque III, shared the opposing sentiments of the Healthcare Professionals Alliance Against COVID-19. “If we will reduce the WHO recommended physical distancing from 1 meter to 0.75m, and at 50% ridership in our public transportation modes in the NCR, there will be an additional 686 new cases a per day,” revealed the Secretary of Health. He adds, “And If you multiply that by 30 days, you will have about 20,580 cases.” Furthermore, the DOH secretary explains, “If you multiply that by 1.6 (percent) which is our case fatality rate, meaning the number of deaths over the number of total infections, ang lalabas po dito will be 3,951 deaths per year.”

The Healthcare Professionals Alliance Against COVID-19 has warned that the DOTr’s implementation of the gradual reduction of physical distancing protocols in public transportation is ill-timed and will only drive up coronavirus infections. And as we have seen from the DOH’s daily COVID-19 updates, there is still no significant decline in the number of new infections being recorded. 

The government has repeatedly  said it will base its COVID-19 policies on science. Does it look like it is? 

As of presstime, 4,699 more positive cases have been added to the total. Granted that only 3.6% of active cases fall within the severe and critical classifications, the fact that there is still uncertainty on how the virus will affect a person should be cause for worry. And if one happens to be unfortunate enough to be in either of these classifications, hospital bills that can rack up to a million pesos is a valid concern that needs to be factored in not just by the government, but by every individual.

Even Eduardo Año,  the Secretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government, himself a COVID-19 positive twice over, is against the new public transportation guidelines being imposed by the DOTr and IATF-EID. “Tingin ko yung sa proposal na .75 (meters), pagkatapos gagawin pong .50  tapos gagawin pang .3, medyo delikado na po yun. Sumasangayon ako sa mga healthworkers at health sectors na ito ay magsisimula ng mga spike at parang roller coaster, babalik nanaman po tayo sa pinagmulan natin, magiging ECQ nanaman.” Secretary Año adds,  “Sinusunod po natin itong minimum na ito sa lahat po, sa opisina, sa mall, sa bahay pero pagdating po sa sasakyan biglang nawala na po yung 1 meter?” He does have a point. 

Unfortunately, many individuals don’t even know they are positive. They don’t even know they are spreaders. And with these reduced physical distancing measures, we are now allowing more people into buses and trains. Just one of these positive individuals, who may have not ridden had the space not been available, can spread the virus to unsuspecting people just going about their business and coping with the new normal. And guess what, it could be you beside this person.

The DOTr even placed a caveat in its press material stating, “The said protocol is likewise subject to changes should there be any concern after the implementation.” The “concern” though could involve you and many others getting infected with COVID-19. Just because we did not follow science. Again. 

In the 134 years of automotive history, science has played a crucial role in improving the safety of drivers, passengers and even pedestrians. The way cars are designed and constructed  today reduce the severity of injuries for people inside and outside the car. Seat belts have saved countless lives since they were introduced in cars in the 1950s. Airbags, Anti-lock Brake Systems, even GPS and modern day navigation are all the result of science. The inventors of these technologies all saw different problems, considered data and came out with solutions to fix these problems. But they all did not experiment with human lives. 

While we all agree that we need to get the economy going, it should not be at the expense of the health of the commuting public. Even countries that have successfully reopened their economies, did so after much planning and consideration, including the reduction of positive case numbers to very low and manageable levels. Much like the now disregarded motorcycle shield and the still present concrete barriers, this 0.75-meter physical distancing directive is yet another experiment involving motorists and commuters. Lamentably, it might be the one that can cost you your life.