OPINION: Restore one-meter physical distancing 1

OPINION: Restore one-meter physical distancing

Action for Economic Reforms

Posted at Sep 17 2020 09:26 PM

Jessica Reyes Cantos, Jenina Joy Chavez, Jo-Ann Latuja Diosana, Eddie Dorotan, Laurence Go, Jose Ernesto Ledesma, Alberto Aldaba Lim, Cielo Magno, Victoria Viterbo Quimbo , Rene Reyes Raya, Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III, Zak Yuson


An intense policy debate concerns the easing of physical distancing on public transport. The Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases has approved the proposal of the Department of Transportation (DoTr) to implement the reduction of physical distancing from the globally accepted standard of one meter to 0.75 meter and ultimately to 0.3 meter. 

The goal ostensibly is to facilitate economic recovery, given the essential role of public transportation in economic activities.

We believe this is the wrong approach. The relaxing of physical distancing will contribute to the rapid rise in infections and in the process will disrupt the economy. To establish the impact of the easing of physical distancing on public utility vehicles, the Health Professionals Alliance Against COVID-19, representing 160 medical or health associations nationwide, used mathematical modeling under the most conservative assumptions. The conservative estimates, assuming a 50 percent resumption of pre-COVID-19 trips, are the following: for physical distancing of 0.75 meter, additional 686 infections daily, distancing of 0.3 meter, additional 1,372 infections daily.

The correct approach is not to reduce physical distancing but to increase the supply of safe public utility vehicles (PUVs) during the emergency. A new set of incentives replacing the “boundary system” (e.g., service contracting) is appropriate. Increasing the supply of PUVs also serves the economic stimulus, as it creates new jobs. In the same vein, allow the functioning of informal modes of public transport, encourage the private sector to shuttle their workers, and enable safe bicycling. Further, stagger the work hours, and adopt new work arrangements like work from home.

The fact is, despite recent gains, we are not yet out of the woods. The goal should be to decrease new infections, not increase them. From 8-15 September 2020, cases remain high at 3,858.5 per day, ad deaths have risen to 97 per day. The painful lesson from countries that have experienced a resurgence of cases is that it leads to huge health and economic losses. Thus, even the desire of recovering the economy is not realized.

It is also undeniable that physical distancing, wearing of masks as well face shields, and maintaining hygienic practices (e.g., washing hands) are all necessary, to avoid COVID-19 infection. These measures are universally accepted.

But the DoTr and its supporters want an exception to physical distancing. This is a dangerous and twisted argument. If PUVs are exempted from the one-meter rule, then for consistency, the easing should likewise apply to other areas like the workplace, the school, the market, the restaurant, etc

In the same vein, the easing of physical distancing on PUVs is a signaling that the situation has normalized. This will lead the public to become complacent, which will result in more infections. 

Making an exception to the rule invites an erosion of compliance with the rule. This again leads to a tragic outcome of more deaths and infections.

The incoherence of the argument for easing physical distance inside the PUVs is made stark when the proponents of such favor keeping a distance of at least one meter inside the transportation station. But the risk of getting infected is higher on the PUV because of the longer time spent in its enclosed space. 

It is likewise surprising that the decision did not take into consideration the unintended consequences of the reduction of physical distance on PUVs. To illustrate, we observe a positive change in the behavior of some commuters who have shifted from driving private vehicles to riding buses, thanks to the convenience brought about by the dedicated bus lanes and the safety measures like physical distancing on buses. But with the abandonment of physical distancing, the educated and informed commuters will abandon the PUVs and return to private vehicle ridership. This will aggravate traffic congestion and weaken the support for public transport. 

Meantime, those without private vehicles—the poor and toiling masses—will bear the brunt of the new infections arising from the abandonment of physical distancing. Thus, such policy is anti-worker, anti-poor.

Bereft of hard data or evidence on the impact of relaxing physical distancing on PUVs, its proponents merely point to countries that do not practice physical distancing on buses and trains. They cite China, Japan, Korea, Singapore Taiwan, and Vietnam. Talk about context! These countries have already flattened the curve or have been relatively successful in containing COVID-19. The Philippine situation, on the other hand, remains precarious. 

We expect policy-makers to be aware of the importance of sequencing. The proper sequencing is: Flatten first the curve, only then do we consider the relaxation of physical distancing. 

Which brings us to an important message that prominent economists elsewhere have emphasized: That there is actually no tradeoff between protecting health and recovering the economy. This idea is succinctly articulated in an article titled “Which countries have protected both health and the economy in the pandemic?” (Joe Hassell, September 3, 2020, ourworldindata.org). 

First, “Comparing the COVID-19 death rate with the latest GDP data,…countries that have managed to protect their population’s health in the pandemic have generally also protected their economy.”

Second: “As well as saving lives, countries controlling the outbreak effectively may have adopted the best economic strategy, too.” 

Accordingly, this policy of reducing physical distancing will cause harm to our health, especially to the health of our workers, and will further damage the economy. (September 16, 2020) 

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.