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Transport restrictions are necessary to halt the spread of Covid-19 pandemic

Fikile Mbalula is the Minister of Transport.

As South Africa enters the two weeks extension of the nationwide lockdown, the nation is being called upon to up the ante in the collective fight to eliminate the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. This extension comes fast on the heels of similar extensions across the world and in our own continent too. 

Our modes of transport pull people closer to each other in confined spaces, be it on a bus, taxi, train or aeroplane. The world saw and experienced devastation after devastation in the cruise ship liners as they too fall under transport. These confined spaces become petri dishes with alarming speed.

The Twin Towers terrorist attacks in New York on 11 September 2001 and the failed shoe bomber attack dramatically changed our way of life and the ease of travel. Suddenly, security screening and immigration cooperation across the world, pre-screening of passenger manifests had to be coordinated at a global level. Since then, life has changed and the new normal are the long screening queues, constant CCTV, body searches and even the process of taking off shoes and belts before entering the airport secure area. There are even restrictions on sizes of fluids you can take on board an international flight.

The public ought to be prepared for yet another layer of changes to come in public transport for a long while, if not permanently, as the experts inform us that this novel coronavirus is not going to be the last to confront us.

Questions to ask and start preparing for include:

  • Should domestic travel include temperature screening,
  • Would the countries of the world start demanding Covid-19 health certificates for arriving passengers, as we currently do for yellow fever and malaria?
  • Are trains, buses and taxis to also have this fixture?
  • Should ministers of transport start advocating for universal masking while on public transit modes?
  • What is the meaning of all of this in terms of global commerce and ease of doing business?
  • Will there be a need to move faster in introducing universal digital ticketing to enable better trace and tracking of any passengers, should an infection be determined at a particular place and time?
  • Should facial recognition instead of touch biometrics be the best way forward on turnstiles?
  • Is Covid-19 a global transport 9/11? Should policymakers start seeing it that way?

While transport facilitates both commerce and social interactions, it could also facilitate the fast-spreading of any viruses. It is for this reason that we conducted our risk assessment in the early days before the pandemic hit our shores.

We were under no illusion about the vulnerability of the public and those who rely on public transport in particular. In our country, one of the key taxi rank stops are found in hospitals and clinics – this highlights the great human need for this sector as people use taxis for such activities as visiting hospitals and clinics.

The decision to shut down the passenger rail system, the airlines and introduce stringent measures on the bus and taxi industries was informed by this reality.

Government had to make hard choices informed by its constitutional obligation to protect citizens. Expediency, nor economic concerns, can never supersede the preservation of human life in a society such as ours, a democracy whose very foundation is built on human rights.

The right to life is sacrosanct and supersedes all other rights.

To put this into perspective, the minibus taxi industry in South Africa ferries some 16 million people daily. These include children, school-attending youth and adults up to the elderly. The minibuses cover over 65 per cent of daily commuters. One can only imagine the sheer devastation that this sector alone could easily contribute to, should we not have stringent regulations in place and monitor them.

Some in the minibus taxi industry adopted a confrontational posture in challenging the directions we proclaimed to reduce passenger capacity to 70 per cent. There is no doubt that small and informal businesses, which includes the taxi industry, will come out of this lockdown hardest-hit. However, this is also the time for all of us to start having serious introspection over operational matters we have shied away from. These include the very essence of the sector being regarded to some extent as an informal sector – this cannot continue to be.

Where public safety and lives are concerned, we cannot be informal. If there is a genuine requirement to have government tap into public finances to cushion any sector, such a sector cannot be partly operating in the open and also partly in the dark. The ability of the state to roll out incentive packages to alleviate the devastation of the lockdown is limited by what the public sector economy can absorb, also by the full formalisation of the sector itself.

Full formalization of the taxi industry would bode well for the general economy and our national product. It will also make it easier to advance policy towards such matters as subsidies and others. Government is ready to move with the sector into a new paradigm that puts people first whilst recognizing the efficiencies and people’s choice for the sector. The conversation about a public transport-funding model that includes subsidy for the taxi industry must be taken to its logical conclusion.

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As Minister, I am also very concerned about the state of our domestic airlines, their routes and their general health as businesses going forward. The top four carriers will surely come out of the lockdown hard-hit too – the downstream businesses that support these airlines will also be hard-hit. South Africa needs to find ways that the airlines remain competitive and viable for our public and commercial use.

There is no denying that without our airlines, the arteries of our economy would clog up. I am thus duty-bound to make sure that the lockdown does not devastate our continued prosperity towards positive growth and a sustainable airline business sector.

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A week prior to the President’s announcement of the lockdown I had authorised a shut down for maintenance and upgrades on various corridors in the rail sector.

These include the very busy Cape Town Main line – this shut down decision was itself not an easy one to take, however, it was very necessary. Prasa has to be brought back to life, to efficient and reliable life with the ethos of “people first”. The ensuing lockdown affords us some space to do necessary maintenance work and this is a serious priority. The work of Prasa has now been complicated further by Covid-19 as such matters like security and safety have dramatically changed.

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We have had to pay attention at the road freight industry so that our supermarkets and pharmacies remain stocked up while also making sure that other essential goods items keep moving. This includes cross-border essential trade as well as we hold certain international obligations to the use of our waters by land-locked neighbouring sister nations. These complex matters continue to receive attention as we follow the health safety management guidance of my colleague Minister Zweli Mkhize along.

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The unfortunate economic downgrade of our economy to junk status by Moody’s has added fuel to the fire we are trying to quell.

Our commitment not only to easing the economic pressure of the lockdown, but also to finding the long-term sustainable economic models for the transport industry has never been greater.

Further complications that visit my desk at this time include the drop in fuel levies, which in turn exacerbate the financial position of the Road Accident Fund, and diminish further its ability to provide the much-needed financial relief to road accident victims.

These are amongst the matters that are a priority to me as Minister of Transport all the while with the drive to reduce our road accidents and their fatalities.

The restrictions in public transport and free movement of vehicles are about the preservation of human life. We must all make sacrifices and forsake our personal comforts for the greater good.

Restrictions on travel across the metro, district and provincial borders; limit on passenger capacity in buses and taxis; limited times for availability of public transport are necessary compromises aimed at eliminating the spread of this deadly virus and protecting our families. There is very little doubt that some of these measures will change our way of life for generations to come.

Analysis of the country’s adherence to the transport restrictions during the first 2 weeks of the lockdown reveals a growing pattern of brazen disregard for the lockdown rules, particularly in the run-up to the Easter weekend.

The patterns that require of us to keep an eye on, are compliance by minibus taxis with passenger limits, operating beyond regulated hours, compliance by e-hailing providers and the increasing number of vehicles on the roads.

Over this period, the average number of roadblocks stood at 145 where an average of 19,460 vehicles were stopped.

As we continue to review the efficacy of our directions, we have taken note of challenges that arise as a consequence of the limits to public transport operations and the entire transport sector – where modifications are necessary, these will be made with the expert Health Department input. Our decisions are going to be based only on science and the rule of law.

We are all in this together and together we shall come out more determined – as weeks proceed, I will be examining measures necessary to ease certain restrictions.

As stated, the priority will be on the levelling of the curve and public health first. Indeed, when aeroplanes do not fly, ACSA suffers, when cars are fewer on the roads, the necessary levies that SANRAL and RAF need shrink, ATNS and others experience the same within my agency portfolio. We are a country that needs to have a vibrant export trade, restrictions hamper this and as government are alive to it and are working tirelessly to see this hard period through as quick as possible.

The restrictions we have are not a punishment but a collective effort for human survival itself.

In the meantime, I urge all passengers and drivers to wear masks, avoid touching each other, sanitize and wash hands frequently and only travel for approved essential travel. DM

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