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The lat­est in the saga of woes in­flicted on the com­mut­ing pub­lic is a con­so­la­tion of sorts: the sus­pen­sion of the manda­tory use of the au­to­mated fare col­lec­tion sys­tem on the Edsa Busway. A dual pay­ment sys­tem through cash or Beep card is in ef­fect “un­til the is­sue is re­solved,” per the Sun­day an­nounce­ment of the Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion (DOTR)— con­suelo de bobo for com­muters, par­tic­u­larly in Metro Manila, who have been en­dur­ing un­told hard­ship since the gov­ern­ment im­posed the lock­down in March. Anin­suf­fi­cient in­for­ma­tion drive did not pre­parecom­muters for the Oct. 1 launch of the cash­less pay­ment sys­tem on the Edsa Busway, re­sult­ing in even longer queues and set­ting them back by up to P180 for a Beep card (P80) and load (P100). It added to the has­sles af­flict­ing the thou­sands upon thou­sands who com­mute to get to their work­places or to do im­por­tant er­rands—a daily or­deal that can only be imag­ined, if they deign to, by gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials who make the de­ci­sions cru­cial to life in these parts.

But the sus­pen­sion merely pro­vides breath­ing space for com­muters. At this writ­ing, AF Pay­ments Inc. is not back­track­ing on the cost of the Beep cards it is sup­ply­ing, and free stored-value cards that may also be used in trains and point-to-point buses can­not yet be ex­pected to fall like manna from heaven. The is­sue is still be­ing dis­cussed on Mount Olym­pus, so to speak. (And a great num­ber are still await­ing SAP “ayuda” de­spite the Depart­ment of So­cial Wel­fare and Devel­op­ment’s bil­lions in un­spent funds.)

What other mea­sures can the gov­ern­ment be think­ing of im­pos­ing on com­muters with­out ben­e­fit of thor­ough study, due con­sid­er­a­tion of pre­vail­ing cir­cum­stances, and con­sul­ta­tion with all par­ties in­volved? It wasn’t too long ago that the Na­tional Task Force Against COVID-19 dreamed up the bar­rier sep­a­rat­ing driv­ers and pas­sen­gers on mo­tor­cy­cles and re­quired its in­stal­la­tion de­spite the pre­pos­ter­ous­ness of the idea es­pe­cially when ap­plied to cou­ples and other fam­ily mem­bers, as well as the con­tention of ex­perts that it is aero­dy­nam­i­cally dan­ger­ous. Hard-up Filipinos who use a mo­tor­cy­cle to get to and from work—and they are the ma­jor­ity com­pared to those merely com­mit­ted to the zen of easy rid­ing— had to pro­duce at least P600 to pur­chase and in­stall the bar­rier and thus be able to en­gage in pil­lion rid­ing with­out fear of be­ing pe­nal­ized. Yet within weeks, after all the hue and cry and (big) ex­pense, the Joint Task Force COVID Shield deemed the bar­rier no longer nec­es­sary.

Com­muters have gen­er­ally been com­pli­ant with the pro­to­cols re­quired to fight the pan­demic. The ab­sence of phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing on the streets that gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials de­cry and au­to­mat­i­cally con­clude as “pa­s­away” be­hav­ior—as when com­muters break a queue to crowd around a pub­lic util­ity ve­hi­cle and jos­tle with one an­other to get on board—is ob­vi­ously born of des­per­a­tion of get­ting a ride to make it to work or back home by the skin of their teeth. Even now when more and more busi­ness en­ter­prises are re­sum­ing op­er­a­tions, the lim­ited vol­ume of pub­lic util­ity ve­hi­cles al­lowed to ply routes is sim­ply not enough to pro­vide a ride for those who ur­gently need it.

Con­sider the idled jeep­neys and their driv­ers, most of them able-bod­ied men who know no other means of mak­ing a liv­ing and are lit­er­ally driven to beg in the streets for food. Early in the pan­demic, six jeep­ney driv­ers, in­clud­ing a 72-year-old, pub­licly protested their loss of liveli­hood—and were ar­rested and clapped in jail for sup­pos­edly vi­o­lat­ing health reg­u­la­tions. They were held be­hind bars for al­most a week be­fore be­ing re­leased on bail, which was raised through the kind­ness of strangers.

That was in June. As of mid-septem­ber, the Land Trans­porta­tion Fran­chis­ing and Reg­u­la­tory Board has al­lowed the re­de­ploy­ment of only 18,000 jeep­neys, mean­ing that two-thirds of more than 55,000 driv­ers in Metro Manila re­main with­out­workand in­come, and an es­ti­mated 1.7 mil­lion­com­muter­scon­tinue to­be­un­der­served. Con­fu­sion was added to the grim sit­u­a­tion early last month when of­fi­cials de­cided to re­duce the re­quired phys­i­cal dis­tance be­tween com­muters in an ap­par­ent ef­fort at near-nor­malcy; again, the de­ci­sion was re­scinded within days.

Yet the sound rec­om­men­da­tion from ex­perts that all jeep­neys be al­lowed back in the streets, so that the re­quired dis­tance be­tween com­muters can be main­tained, con­tin­ues to be ig­nored.

It’s hardly sur­pris­ing that on Sept. 29, 16 jeep­ney driv­ers from the cities of Man­daluy­ong and Manila and the Na­tional Con­fed­er­a­tion of Trans­port Work­ers’ Union took mat­ters in their hands and asked the Supreme Court to void gov­ern­ment or­ders dur­ing thep­an­demic­that gave them least pri­or­ity vis-à-vis driv­ers of other pub­lic util­ity ve­hi­cles. They said these or­ders were dis­crim­i­na­tory and vi­o­lated, among oth­ers, equal pro­tec­tion un­der the law.

Not only jeep­ney driv­ers but also com­muters are bank­ing on the wis­dom of the court of last re­sort.

Philippine Daily Inquirer, October 7, 2020

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