COVID 19 has been declared a pandemic, positing that strategic measures be taking to curb its spread. Nigeria like many nations of the world has had its fair share of the concern with at least 8 imported victims which the health system is managing. 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:
- Religious, political and other gathering of crowd
- Closure of schools
- Guidelines for operating malls, offices and other public premises
- Self-quarantine for immigrants and Nigerian citizens which arrived from high risk nations
- Ban on arrivals from 13 nations with at least a thousand victims
- Ban on international travel by government officials, etc
The obvious overall goal of the restrictions are to limit the number of close contacts with infected or potentially infected individuals and objects. I was therefore waiting to hear specific guides on inter and intra state public transport, and shared taxi that convey multitudes of urban dwellers in cities with potential risks but none came, or so it seem. I have also heard and watched debates and discussions on COVID19 on many TV and ration stations without a mention of its implication on public transport and shared taxi.
Item 2 of the self-protection guideline by 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” how do one interpret this in the light of public transport or shred taxi? What is the fate of the man who enters bus from Maraba to Federal Secretariat in Abuja, or the man who enters gulf from Shoprite in Apo to Garki area 1 in Abuja? What about the man from Mile 2 to Ikeja in Lagos or that one that enters shorn from Abuja to Kano, Portharcourt, Yola or Enugu, is this in public discuss anywhere? Can we quench the fire when it truly start burning, especially giving the overloaded nature of virtually all vehicles on our roads?
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 don't hang around 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. This is when Volkswagen car made for 3 passangers carries 6, plus the driver making 7.
Do not forget that about 50% of all trips in Lagos is 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 cities of Nigeria.
David Nabarro, a special adviser on 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 didn't so far seem to be the "most important source of transmission" was this the min-set that has made the authorities not to give specific attention to public transport. But evidence from nations other than China which now have infected victims show that quite a number of victims contacted 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. Yet 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, according to the New England Journal of Medicine on its paper “Transmission of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome on Aircraft”
The implication of this with particular regards to our kind of public transport and shared taxi is huge. First, the terminals and bus stops for loading and offloading of most transport companies are crowded, the 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, but which seem not to be the case. And is Nigeria Center for Disease Control 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, some cities have banned shared taxi, Uber suspended its carpooling operations in the US and Canada last week, in the wake of COVID19, some cities of Tehran have reduced number of passengers in shared vehicles to maximum of 3, some cities of China has reduced seating capacity of vehicles to 50%, these are all in addition to other sanitary measures. And nobody is saying anything in Nigeria? And by the way, is anybody looking at the implications of this on public transport patronage, what’s 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 taxi daily. Am not sure we will want to see the negative outcome of this silence by respective authorities.
It is on that note that the following recommendations are made:
- The Nigeria Center for disease Control en tandem with the Presidential committee on COVID19 and the relevant NMDAs on transportation should set up a transport sub-committee to examine, monitor and report on transport related management of COVID19
- There is the need to develop and publish clear guidelines and measures specific to transport drawing from the different examples across the world
- Publish basic dos and don'ts for passengers and in-vehicle operators (drivers and conductors)
- Monitor compliance by operators accordingly.
- Sonja J. Olsen, et' al (2013), 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/10.1056/NEJMoa031349 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), Comparative Analysis 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