Duterte officials clash over reduced physical distance in public transport

SOFIA TOMACRUZ

Key officials of the Duterte government on Monday, September 14, found themselves airing different positions to the public over the transportation department’s move to reduce physical distancing in trains, buses, and other public vehicles. 

It’s the latest show of discord among top officials tasked to craft and implement policies to address the pandemic.  

One group, composed mainly of the government’s economic advisers, supported the Department of Transportation’s (DOTr) easing of the required distance between commuters, from 1 meter to only 0.75 meter starting Monday. 

The DOTr insisted that the policy – described as “optimizing physical distancing” measures – had been “based on scientific studies,’ such as the one by the International Union of Railways. 

Backing the DOTr, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said last Saturday, September 13, that it was a “calibrated move” to help reopen the economy. He said “additional health protocols” will be put in when we reduce physical distancing between commuters. 

Like Nograles, Acting Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Chua said last Friday, September 9, that the government’s economic development cluster signed and presented a joint position paper to the task force handling the pandemic “to further open up, safely and sufficiently, the public transportation system.” 

Opposite view

But the Department of Health and Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, who is vice chair of the Philippines’ coronavirus task force, did not agree with the DOTr’s latest move.

Año expressed his reservations about easing the minimum health standard while the DOH stood by its recommendation on physical distancing. 

The DOH stressed that while the DOTr wanted to “optimize physical distancing in transportation,” Filipinos must practice minimum health standards like wearing of face masks and face shields to prevent transmitting the coronavirus.

“If possible, choose to participate in activities or use transport options that can afford at least 1-meter distancing,” the DOH added, as it implored senior citizens and immunocompromised individuals who do not feel well to stay home. 

Medical experts likewise opposed the DOTr’s move to ease restrictions on public transportation as they warned it was still too early in the Philippines’ pandemic to institute such measures. The Philippines continues to see an increase in cases with some 3,000 to 4,000 infections reported daily. 

“Cases will surely rise and hamper our recovery if we do this now,” said leading epidemiologist and Healthcare Professionals Alliance for COVID-19 (HPAAC) member Dr Antonio Dans.

The group is the Philippines’ largest organization of health workers, and includes medical organizations that earlier called on the government to review its pandemic response as the country was “losing the battle” against COVID-19.

Meanwhile, transportation groups also earlier suggested that the government increase the transportation system’s capacity by hiring drivers and transportation service providers like inactive bus companies.

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