Joburg’s public transport may not be ready for coronavirus

Commuters who use public transport are at high risk of infection, but Johannesburg’s bus, rail and taxi systems are not yet prepared to stem the spread of Covid-19.

The coronavirus entered South Africa by way of a few aeroplane passengers. But, after President Cyril Ramaphosa’s weekend announcement that it has started to spread within the country, there are concerns that the reach of the virus may be extended by the country’s millions of bus, train and minibus taxi passengers.

As of Wednesday 18 March, there were 61 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Gauteng. But plans for how to reduce public transport passengers’ exposure to the virus were still thin on the ground in Joburg.

Mayor Geoff Makhubo met with members of his mayoral committee on Tuesday afternoon in the wake of a Monday meeting with Gauteng Premier David Makhura. While reports were submitted by the city’s transport department, among others, to the special sitting of the mayoral committee, no official plan was yet available.

Officials at municipal entity Metrobus, Joburg’s rapid bus transit system Rea Vaya and the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) were not willing to answer questions regarding the operational changes that would be implemented in light of Covid-19. These included whether or not voluntary testing centres would be established at transport nodes, if hand sanitisers, tissues and face masks would be provided to commuters, and if public transport travel restrictions had been considered.

The public transport nexus

Peta de Jager, who specialises in building design and engineering at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, said that a unique nexus of factors mean public transport commuters, including those using “last-mile services” like minibus taxis, are at particular risk of Covid-19 infection.

The density and proximity, together with a lack of hygiene facilities at transport nodes and on board public transport, along with the need of commuters to get to work, make for a potentially malignant mix.

“Activities and settings, which place susceptible and infectious persons into close contact, are high risk for transmission of infectious diseases,” said De Jager.

Leaza Jernberg, an independent researcher who focuses on cities and international security, and considers the multidimensional causes and consequences of pandemics, agreed. “Public transport is a particular threat as it places a large number of people in very close confines with each other, which means that one infected person can infect a number of other people very quickly,” she said.

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Early studies suggest that the coronavirus can survive up to three days in droplets that are coughed or sneezed on to surfaces, so taxis, buses and trains remain possible carriers of the virus. “The infectious droplets passengers leave behind can still spread the virus,” said Jernberg.

Transport nodes such as taxi ranks, bus stops and train stations present various other risks of exposure to Covid-19 through ticket kiosks, self-help stations and tightly packed commuter queues.

Enforcing safe distances between commuters appears unlikely. But in anticipation of any official plans, De Jager and Jernberg agree that the government and other transport operators should use their access to a mass of commuters to communicate the risks of Covid-19 and how they might be mitigated. “Public transport providers have contact with many persons so can provide a role in providing clear information,” said De Jager.

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Other operational interventions are also critical, they said.

“Public transport will require rigorous and frequent cleaning with disinfectant. It will also have to be particularly focused on high frequency areas such as handrails and door handles,” said Jernberg. “Some of this could be supplemented by providing disinfectant wipes for passengers themselves to use to open door handles or wipe down seats. Hand sanitiser needs to be provided and used by people getting on and off transport.”

“Should the situation become worse, the government may need to institute a total travel ban,” she added.

Gauteng’s skewed transport 

It is unclear whether or not public transport users will be able to avoid going to work, however, and if they can afford alternative modes of transport.

By the end of 2017, according to an analysis by Tim Köhler, a development economist at the University of Cape Town’s development policy research unit, about one in every three working people in South Africa is not entitled to paid vacation or sick leave. Around nine in every 10 of the country’s richest 20% of individuals have paid leave. By contrast, only around five in every 10 of the poorest 50% enjoy the same benefit.

Those who cannot take paid leave are concentrated in certain industries. About three in every four workers in private households, such as domestic workers, and nearly half of all farm and construction workers do not enjoy paid leave. 

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Covid-19 will not distinguish between people. But exposure to the virus as a result of public transport is likely to have disproportionate effects on impoverished people living in the city. Among respondents in the Gauteng City-Region Observatory’s 2017/2018 Quality of Life survey, around  84% who used taxi or rail for the longest part of their commute and 75% of respondents who used a bus were from households with a monthly income of less than R6 400.

Exposure to the virus as a result of public transport will likely be racially distorted, too. Almost 70% of black African respondents in Gauteng travelled by taxi, bus or train. Slightly more than 40% of those the apartheid government categorised as coloured did the same. By contrast, only 8% of respondents of Indian descent and 4% of white respondents used these forms of transport.

Update, 19 March 2020:

Since this story was published, Joburg mayor Geoff Makhubo released a statement on the municipality’s Covid-19 interventions. With regard to public transport, “the Metro Bus and Rea-Vaya bus services are to drastically scale down operations in accordance with a principle of one person per two seater and two people per three seater bench. All busses will be sanitized once every 24-hours and washed twice a day. Sanitizers will be provided for commuters on busses and at ticket offices and depots. Cash payments for trips are suspended and commuters are encouraged to get tags, which will be issued free of charge during this period.”

Correction, 18 March 2020: This article previously stated that about one in every three workers in private households, such as domestic workers, and nearly half of all farm and construction workers do not enjoy paid leave. 

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