By Engr. Emmanuel John
COVID 19 has been declared a pandemic, positing that strategic measures be taken to curb its spread. Nigeria, like many nations of the world, has had its fair share of the concern with now (March 23) 40 confirmed cases and a first death. Government at different levels on their part are setting restrictions, and providing different strategies to ensure that the disease does not spread beyond the known victims: Among these restrictions are:
1. Limiting religious, political and other gathering of crowd
2. Closure of schools,
3. Guidelines for operating malls, offices and other public premises
4. Self-quarantine for immigrants and Nigerian citizens which arrived from high risk nations
5. Ban on arrivals from 13 nations with at least a thousand victims
6. Ban on international travel by government officials, etc.
The obvious overall goal of the restrictions is to limit the number of close contacts with infected or potentially infected individuals and objects. I was therefore waiting to hear specific guidelines on inter- and intra-state public transport, as well as shared taxis, that convey multitudes of urban dwellers in cities with potential risks – but few had come. I have also heard and watched debates and discussions on COVID19 on many TV and radio stations without a mention of its implication on public transport and shared taxi (Editor’s Note: The original article was written on March 19. In the meantime, at least 3 big cities have published measures for public transport to counter COVID 19).
Item 2 of the self-protection guideline by the (Nigeria Centre for Disease Control) (NCDC) says: “Avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness. Maintain at least 2 metres (5 feet) distance between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing repeatedly”. It is hard to currently interpret this in the light of continued public transport or shared taxis. Because it has important ramifications for public transport. Let me elaborate:
The exact mode of spread of COVID19 is still a subject of debate among experts, but similar viruses are known to spread through breathing in droplets from an infected person’s coughs, sneezes, or touching surfaces that are contaminated with the virus. Experts have suggested that COVID19 particles probably do not persist in the air in the same way flu particles do, so, people need to be in closer contact with each other to catch it. The UK NHS guidance on coronavirus defines “close contact” as being within two meters of an infected person for more than 15 minutes.
Do not forget that about 50% of all trips in Lagos are made by public transport (BRT, LAGBUS, Semi-Formal Mini Buses, Federal Mass Transit Train) and shared taxi, LAMATA (2016). In Abuja, about 57% of trips are by public transport and shared taxi (Emmanuel John 2018). The situation is similar in many other cities of Nigeria.
David Nabarro, a special adviser on the coronavirus for the World Health Organization (WHO), told the BBC that although public transport was an important thing to look at, the evidence suggested that the kind of “fleeting contacts” people have when travelling together so far did not seem to be the “most important source of transmission”. For this reason and with similar mindset, authorities had not given specific attention to public transport for a while. But evidence from nations other than China which now have infected victims show that quite a number of victims contracted the disease while on travel.
However, WHO in its guidance on respiratory disease says that the highest risk area while on a flight is the two rows in front, behind or next to an infected person.
“During the 2003 Sars outbreak, on a plane carrying one infected person, 45% of those who caught the disease were sitting outside the two-row zone.” (England Journal of Medicine on its 2003 paper “Transmission of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome on Aircraft” (link below)
The implications of this, with particular regards to our kind of public transport and shared taxi system, are huge. First, the terminals and bus stops for loading and offloading of most transport companies are crowded, while vehicles, especially those of the informal and semi-formal transport, are overloaded with tight seating arrangements. Secondly, it is needful that managers of transport companies, terminal operators and company/vehicle owners sanitize and disinfect the terminals and vehicles repeatedly. This currently does not seem to be the case. Thirdly, is the NCDC aware of the implication of this and monitoring the transport sector beyond aviation and maritime? For instance, elsewhere, it is mandatory for passengers and in vehicle operators, to wear nose guards, have tissues/handkerchief and sanitize their hands before entering a public vehicle. Fourth, some cities have banned shared taxis and taxis in the wake of COVID19. As consequence, is anybody looking at the implications of this on public transport patronage and financial stability: what is the impact, is a stimulus package required to keep the transport companies afloat?
There is therefore a clear chance that the difference measures being put in place in the wake of the COVID19 in Nigeria may amount to nothing if the transportation gaps are not quickly addressed, because transport is not an option, it’s a daily necessity and arguably 50% of the population utilizes public transport or shared taxis.
It is on that note that the following recommendations are made:
a. The Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC), in tandem with the Presidential Committee on COVID19, should set up a transport sub-committee to examine, monitor and report on transport related management of COVID19.
b. There is the need to develop and publish clear guidelines and measures specific to transport drawing from the different examples across the world
c. Publish basic dos and dont’s for passengers and in-vehicle operators (drivers and conductors)
d. Monitor compliance by operators accordingly.
Sonja J. Olsen, et’ al (20013), Transmission of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome on Aircraft, the New England Journal of Medicine, N ENGL J MED 349;25 https://www.nejm.org/doi/pdf/1… Retrieved, 20 March, 2020
WHO Travel Advise (2020), key considerations for repatriation and quarantine of travellers in relation to the outbreak of novel coronavirus 2019-ncov https://www.who.int/news-room/articles-detail/key-considerations-for-repatriation-and-quarantine-of-travellers-in-relation-to-the-outbreak-of-novel-coronavirus-2019-ncov retrieved, 19 March, 2020
The coronavirus and the public transport sector: UITP issues factsheet on management of outbreak https://www.uitp.org/news/coronavirus-outbreak-uitp-and-public-transport-sector
Emmanuel John (2018), ComparativeAnalysis of the complexity of urban mobility between Abuja Nigeria and Amsterdam, the Netherlands, a post graduate research.
National Health Service (NHS) UK COVID19 Guide https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/ Retrieved 17th March, 2020.
NCDC18th march 2020| public health advisory to Nigerians on coronavirus disease https://ncdc.gov.ng/news/237/update-on-covid-19-in-nigeria retrieved 20th March, 2020