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Insights into Editorial: Making public transport safe during COVID-19

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Context:

Public transport has returned to the national capital’s streets, but as long as coronavirus infections continue to rise, things will remain far from ‘normal’.

Experts suggest there is an urgent need to bring in systemic changes to the public transport system to suit the reality of ‘living with the virus’.

These systemic changes include tiding over the initial phase of low ridership by restoring faith in the mass transit system through staggered hours, social distancing and Covid protocols, and focusing on non-motorised transport to limit contact.

Central to India’s lockdown to control the spread of COVID-19 was a complete shutdown of the transport system.

Now, as the country emerges from the lockdown, a proper ramping up of the transport system is needed. This should not be done in haste, however.

Can COVID-19 spread through public transport systems?

It is difficult to answer this question with numbers. A recent paper from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology argued that New York’s subways seeded the epidemic in the city.

While the research fails to establish causation from the observed correlation, as the author had admitted, it cannot be discarded as implausible.

It is commendable that India shut down public transport before it could contribute to the spread, with an early lockdown. We now need to consider what can ensue on a restart, especially of metro rail.

The experts suggest there are two ways to get more people to be less weary of public transport — by issuing Covid safety standard operating procedures, and ramping up the capacity of public transport.

Just like pollution certificates are essential for vehicles, the government should also come up with Covid safety certification to instil faith.

While Covid safety protocols will be ensured by the government on buses and the metros, the onus on sanitising vehicles and ensuring passenger safety in Ola and Uber cabs and autos will fall on owners and drivers.

COVID-19 and public transport:

  1. Fearing crowd infections, commuters prefer travelling in private modes like two-wheelers.
  2. Cities like Delhi, that resumed services nearly four weeks ago, observed less ridership than the allowed 20 passengers per bus, despite the limited frequencies on many routes.
  3. Although bus crowding is seen in some cities such as Mumbai, it is temporary and due to a lack of alternatives.
  4. A significant drop in public transport ridership can be expected for months after resumption, based on opinion surveys.
  5. That means measures are needed to gain the public’s confidence in mass transport modes, to avoid a significant modal shift to road traffic.
  6. The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation has released guidelines to tackle several social distancing and sanitisation concerns, and to address the possibility of viral transmission through tokens, push buttons on lifts, and handrails at the station elevators.

Are these measures enough to prevent serious viral transmission?

  1. Unfortunately, public transit agencies around the world face the problem of a dearth of research by scientists on the specific modality of COVID-19 transmission during public transport commute.
  2. Confidentiality laws usually prevent the availability of contact-tracing data to extract the precise details of how any individual got infected.
  3. There have been some notable research efforts, currently under peer review, that did use detailed contact-tracing data from China and Korea.
  4. One study says that SARS-CoV-2 does not seem to get transmitted much outdoors.
  5. In fact, only a single cluster of two cases out of nearly a thousand was traced to an outdoor infection in China.
  6. Correlation to the effect of air conditioning airflow has also been established based on precise seating locations of those infected at a restaurant and at a call centre.
  7. Indian authorities who were already working under similar assumptions on the effects of AC will be proven justified by the conclusion of such research that there is clearly high risk in indoor areas under AC with focused air flow.
  8. From the above research we can conclude that a non-AC bus with open windows offers a much less risky outdoor-like environment.
  9. However, it would be wrong to conclude that an AC metro rail coach is risky – for a different reason, in that contact-time is also very important in viral transmission in indoor spaces.

Way Forward:

Actions are needed from both authorities and the public to keep our public transport systems safe.

If no such actions are taken and a serious level of viral transmission is later traced to public transit, the result will be a mode shift to private vehicles.

As pollution and accidents kill more people in India than COVID-19 does now, a mode shift away from public transport will have long-term consequences.

Our buses and trains must be perceived as safe, so it is vital to assure ourselves that public transport is for the public not the virus.

Conclusion: Suggestions for more safety:

We should expect a lot of passengers to leave in a hurry and to not bother with cleaning their hands, even if hand sanitiser dispensers are available.

Considering such possibilities, a few safety suggestions that can be implemented immediately.

The first is to employ staff to wipe the handgrips at frequent intervals, constantly moving from end to end in the train.

Any handgrips in buses also need to be cleaned often. Another is to give wet sanitising wipes to every traveller entering a metro rail coach with a suggestion to have it in their palms before touching or gripping anything. Wipe disposal bins will be needed in the coaches.

The metro rail agencies’ focus may need to shift to the egressing passengers, as it is important to prevent them from transferring what is on their hands to their faces after egress.

Paid staff or volunteers dispensing hand sanitisers on platforms can be an option.

Offering contact-less wash basins with soap dispensers at the platform level could be effective. Signs on hand hygiene vis-a-vis touching surfaces are needed.

There are possible options in metro trains to create external airflow to dissipate viral particles.

Metro rail authorities are planning to leave the doors open at the terminal before the next run of each train.

Since a majority of metro rail stretches in India are elevated, there are other creative options, if safety considerations will allow them. One would be to have staff onboard to direct passengers away from a certain coach to other coaches.

Eventually, metro rail AC systems could be changed to High Efficiency Particulate Air filters with frequent circulation of fresh air.

 


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