Open-air jeepneys safer vs. COVID-19 than enclosed modernized ones

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With only modernized jeepneys allowed to resume operations next week, research group IBON Foundation said that keeping traditional jeepneys off the road inconveniences commuters and also denies them potentially safer means of transport.

IBON said that the traditional open-air jeepney is likely even safer against COVID-19 than its air-conditioned modernized counterpart. With the pandemic still ongoing, insisting on jeepney modernization unnecessarily puts commuters at risk of possible airborne coronavirus infections.

The second phase of public transport resumption in general community quarantine (GCQ) areas will begin on June 22. Public utility buses (PUB), modern public utility vehicles (PUVs) like modern jeepneys, and utility vans (UV) express will be allowed to operate. Traditional jeepneys will remain prohibited. IBON said that the Duterte administration is using COVID-19 as an excuse to force jeepneys off the road and fast-track its ill-conceived modernization.

IBON however said that the ban on traditional jeepneys should be lifted. According to the group, there are studies which indicate that open-air transport may have advantages over enclosed, air-conditioned transport in controlling the spread of COVID-19.

Most coronavirus transmissions are acknowledged to occur via droplet infection, from coughing and sneezing, and partly through contaminated surfaces. Nonetheless, recent studies show that the number of pathogens increases considerably in enclosed spaces and that regular ventilation reduces the risk of infection. Despite physical distancing, enclosed modern jeepneys can become centers for spreading the virus compared to the natural ventilation of traditional jeepneys, said the group.

Medical researchers and physicists from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) have found that small cough droplets, potentially containing virus particles, can stay in the air of enclosed spaces especially when poorly ventilated. Air quality and health experts from the Chinese Academy of Sciences similarly find that airborne transmission is a significant route of infection in indoor environments.

The UITP (Union Internationale des Transports Publics) or International Association of Public Transport, with 1,600 members in 96 countries, has issued guidelines warning that public transport systems are “high risk environments” due to the “confined space and limited ventilation”. The risk of community transmission through enclosed public transport has already prompted many countries to take specific measures against this, said IBON.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) advises  “proper ventilation in [public transport] at all times” and “the use of windows [to] increase replacement with fresh air”. Similarly, the United States (US) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) came out with guidelines   for mass transit administrators which include, among others, “[increasing] circulation of outdoor air as much as possible”.

In Thailand, the transport ministry has instructed public transport operators to open windows for good air ventilation. In China, some public transport groups have retrofitted window vents to air-conditioned fleets. In India, buses are enjoined to improve ventilation by increasing the frequency of fresh air intake.

With COVID-19 still spreading, traditional jeepneys have the advantage of being open-air, dissipating droplets with the virus faster, and lowering the risk of transmission, said IBON. Yet the government’s narrow-minded focus on corporate-driven jeepney modernization threatens to forego this important built-in advantage in the mass transport system. The pandemic is being used to put thousands of jeepney drivers out of work and take traditional jeepneys permanently off the road in a brutal enforced phaseout, the group said.

IBON stressed that efficient and reliable public transport is critical to resume as normal social and economic life as possible amid the pandemic. Commuters suffering from the lack of jeepneys include many health workers and emergency service providers at the frontlines of the battle against COVID-19. Jeepney drivers and operators need subsidies to make up for revenue losses and higher operating expenses.

The current situation is also an opportunity to promote cooperativization towards the eventually nationalized public mass transport for ensuring this vital service./Stacy Ang

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