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COVID-19 WATCH

‘IBON not a transport expert’

Francis Wakefield

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Malacañang seriously doubts the qualification of IBON Foundation to assess the safety of the modern jeepney and its passengers at this point of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

The non-profit research, education and information development group said 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.

But presidential spokesman Harry Roque has his misgivings on IBON Foundation’s assertion.

“I don’t know what qualifies IBON to arrive at its conclusion,” Roque said, citing the physical configuration of jeepneys that render its passengers highly likely to contract the infection.

But in the hierarchy of transports, Roque said the humble jeepney is at the bottom of the rung and in the province where the lack of public transport is more acute, jeepneys may be allowed as public transports.

Most known coronavirus infections are transmitted via droplets from coughing, sneezing and through contaminated surfaces. Recent studies show the number of pathogens increases considerably in enclosed spaces and that regular ventilation reduces the risk of infection.

IBON said despite physical distancing, enclosed modern jeepneys become centers for spreading the virus more than the open-air ventilation of traditional jeepneys.

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 in 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 Union Internationale des Transports Publics or International Association of Public Transport, with 1,600 members in 96 countries, has warned that public transport systems are high-risk environments due to their 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,” IBON said.

On the other hand, 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) issued guidelines for mass transit administrators that 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,” IBON said.

But Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said riding open-air vehicles like jeepneys do not increase the risk of getting the coronavirus disease as long as the individual wears a mask and observes social distancing.

Senator Francis Pangilinan also said the government will allow jeepney and UV Express operators to ply the routes to help ease the plight of commuters taking public transportation.

Vergeire explained the mode of transmission is via droplet infection and stressed that with or without air-conditioning, people may ride the vehicle provided they observe social distancing and wear masks.

This come just a day after IBON Foundation called for a lifting of the indefinite ban on open-air public utility jeepneys (PUJ), citing foreign studies that say riding such vehicles do not risk acquiring COVID-19.

“If you do not wear your mask, then there is a high possibility of COVID-19 infection,” Vergeire said.

She stopped short of recommending the return of jeepneys as mode of public transport, however, since traditional open-air jeepneys have to be reconfigured to meet minimum health standards.

“There is still that risk on jeepneys because passengers face each other, unlike in buses,” said Vergeire. “I have seen a prototype of the Department of Transportation (DoTr) with space between seats and barriers or engineering control.”

Traditional jeepneys may not meet the requirement “because of financial constraints,” she said.

“The DoH issued minimum public health standards and the DoTr will implement it on jeepneys. The agency should ensure that as we ease restrictions, the minimum health standards are complied with,” Vergeire said.

Earlier, Roque has said jeepneys will only be allowed to ply the roads again if the existing transport available is not enough for commuters.

The routes for buses and modern PUV, however, have been raised on a weekly basis and effectively diminishes the likelihood for jeepneys being allowed to ply the roads again.

with Elmer N. Manuel
@tribunephl_lmer

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