In this opinion piece, small business owner Katharine McKenzie, writes about the measures South Africa should take with regard to public transport to prevent the further spread of Covid-19.
In less than a week South Africans have begun adapting to the declaration of a global pandemic, a national state of disaster and the immediate and widespread disruption to our daily lives.
The World Health Organisation’s declaration on 13 March 2020 that the global Covid-19 outbreak constituted a pandemic was as a result of the speed and scale of the transmission of the coronavirus. Thousands of new cases are being recorded daily across the planet. The number of unrecorded cases is unknown, but the limited capacity for testing suggests that the numbers are likely much, much higher than the verified cases on record.
Our government’s robust response – and the declaration for the first time in the democratic South Africa of a national state of disaster – creates a small window to attempt to manage the rapid and exponential spread of Covid-19 in our country.
For all of us, including small businesses and households with modest (or non-existent) rainy-day emergency funds or resilience plans, surviving the new normal requires, in the words of President Cyril Ramaphosa, cooperation, collaboration and common action.
It means embracing new hygiene practices and behaviours in our homes, our businesses and in the public transport vehicles and public infrastructure we depend on for basic and essential services. It means supporting one another in our efforts to do this.
The majority of South Africans do not own private vehicles. We depend as a country on a huge network of informal service providers in the minibus-taxi industry to move the majority of public transport passengers around. The balance of public transport users rely on subsidised bus services and the failing rail service to get to and from work, school and public services.
Our health system – with its private and public elements – is dependent on the public transport sector to deliver the majority of its staff to public hospitals. Private health facilities may offer some staff transport services, but many staff will also rely on a bus or taxi to get them to work on time. Can we make our transport safe for health workers, carers and everyone providing the essential social and economic services that we need to get through this crisis?
Addressing the nation on Sunday 15 March 2020, President Ramaphosa announced that effective immediately, all non-essential travel for all spheres of government outside of the Republic is prohibited. He went to state that “we further discourage all non-essential domestic travel, particularly by air, rail, taxis and bus.”
The impact was immediate, and the closure of schools a few days later has left many public transport vehicles largely empty and taken thousands of cars off the roads. But the temporary suspension of normal daily life for many can in some respects only be partial. Urban South Africans are entirely dependent on the retail and hospitality sectors for food; non-coronavirus emergencies will require travel and interaction with others; essential services must still be delivered. This means that not everyone can retreat into a lockdown.
And next month if schools re-open as planned and the public transport starts to fill up again, what will the new normal look like on our transport systems? Can we use the time to make public transport Covid-19 safe?
Currently there is a national shortage of hand sanitiser. Most public transport interchanges do not have adequate ablution facilities. In parts of the country there is no running water available. Very few taxi and bus commuters will have an opportunity to wash their hands or sanitise them before and after boarding a public transport vehicle.
We are all learning the new mantra of Covid-19 public health – wash your hands for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitiser, cough and sneeze into a tissue (dispose of it responsibly) or into your elbow, don’t touch each other, don’t touch your face, observe social distancing, stay home and don’t travel if you are sick or have any symptoms of Covid-19.
Implementing hygiene measures and keeping the common areas that are frequently touched on public transport vehicles hygienic and safe for use calls for a vigorous mobilisation of resources. Government regulations under the Disaster Management Act guiding the transport industry would help. Public health education for commuters and staff in the public transport system and action on the part of all spheres of government to make public transport safe to use must be a priority.
There may be a heavy price to pay for the lack of past investment in public transport infrastructure and services including clean, dignified ablution facilities for ordinary commuters; established practice in ensuring that transport infrastructure and vehicles have excellent hygiene; and mechanisms to communicate with the sector and enforce new practices.