Covid-19 Recession Keeps the Philippines’ Jeepneys Off the Roads

Date: 2020-12-29 07:56:32

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After one of the world’s strictest coronavirus lockdowns, Manila’s iconic jeepneys are back on the road. Nine months after the Philippines stopped public transport, the tentative return of jeepneys to Manila’s streets reflects the economy’s halting and uneven road toward recovery.

Mody Floranda has been fighting for the return of the colorful, iconic vehicles, a sort of informal bus for 20 or so passengers modeled around U.S. military jeeps left over from World War II. In normal times, overstuffed jeepneys clog the capital’s roads, with passengers hanging out the back and jumping on and off as the vehicles slow — but may not entirely stop — along the way.

“Mass transport was killed,” said Floranda, president of the Manila-based Piston transport group. “Opening malls, factories and offices are useless if people can’t move around.”

Not only public transport was idled: Many businesses across the tropical archipelago ground to a halt for months, destroying jobs and pushing the country into recession. Philippine officials expect the economy to contract as much as 9.5% this year, before rebounding to 6.5% to 7.5% growth in 2021.

While the number of daily infections has fallen from the August peak, the country is still grappling with the second-worst outbreak in the region. The Philippines’ consumption-driven economy will shrink the most among major Southeast Asian nations this year, according to the Asian Development Bank.

Before the pandemic, “the Filipino consumer was everywhere” and “pushed consumption to new heights,” said Nicholas Mapa, economist at ING Groep NV in Manila. If mobility is restricted, “their ability to carry out discretionary spending is limited substantially.”

Officials are pushing to further reopen mass transport and the economy despite the pandemic. Efforts to revive mass transport have been hampered by difficulties in adopting a contact-tracing system based on QR codes, and by social-distancing measures.

Only 70% of jeepneys in Manila were operating in a limited capacity as of end-November, eight months after the capital was locked down, the government’s transport department says.

That means fewer options for Mart Gerwin Florendo, an assistant bank manager in Manila. He’s thankful he no longer has to bike to work, as he did during the lockdown, but wishes more public transport options were open. Fewer jeepneys mean he has to spend time waiting in line, lengthening his morning commute.

Cut off from their main source of livelihood, some of the 600,000 or so jeepney drivers nationwide have built small online businesses or pivoted to delivery services such as Lalamove, Piston’s Floranda said. But like many informal workers, most are strapped for cash and ill-suited for hi-tech services, leaving some to beg for money, he said.

From March until November, Juanito Serapion had to rely on a bit of government aid and the earnings of his eldest son, who works in a food-delivery service. Serapion, 57, who has been driving jeepneys in Manila for 35 years, got back on the road this month but his earnings are down by 50% with so few people venturing out.

“I hope the government gets vaccines fast so people can go out again, especially students, who make up half of our usual passengers,” he said.

The jeepneys that haven’t returned to the road tend to be those whose routes overlap with buses and trains, which can accommodate more passengers, said Martin Delgra, chairman of the government’s transport regulation body. The government is looking for new routes for affected drivers and has extended cash aid, he said.

The jeepney drivers’ plight has been mirrored across sectors from retail to manufacturing in the Philippines, with those able to ride the tech boom benefiting while those who can’t are left behind. The International Labour Organization estimates 7.2 million Philippine workers are exposed to job disruption due to Covid-19 and digitization.

The Philippine economy won’t regain its pre-pandemic size until 2022, said Makoto Tsuchiya, a Tokyo-based economist at Oxford Economics Ltd. Even in 2025, output will still be below pre-coronavirus forecasts, he added.

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