COVID-19: Focus on cities and transport responses – Southeast Asia

This article first appeared in EcoMobilityFirst written on 23 April 2020, featuring insights from ICLEI South East Asia Secretariat

Nearing 30,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, ASEAN Countries are raising concerns for the fast spread of the infection.[1] As of 20 April 2020, Singapore is the country with the highest number of confirmed cases in the region. Indonesia and the Philippines are deemed to be more at risk as limited testing suggests high chances of underreporting among their large population. Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia have reported relatively few cases and no fatalities so far. [2] In particular, Vietnam is praised for its effective, low-cost strategy to contain the infection.[3]

Indonesia has the world’s fourth-largest population of over 270 million and the biggest economy in South East Asia. The country has registered the highest fatality rate in the region due to COVID-19 and reports one of the lowest rates of tests per million people. [4] Indonesia has not adopted a nation-wide lockdown and a domestic travel ban yet. Jakarta is the first province enforcing a partial quarantine from 10-24 April.

The Philippines are the second most populous ASEAN country with about 108 million inhabitants. In mid-March, the government enforced an “enhanced community quarantine” (ECQ) first in Metro Manila, home to 12.9 million people, and then the whole island group of Luzon, with 57 million inhabitants. The ECQ is essentially a lockdown: the movement of people is limited to buying essential items such as food and medicines and reporting to essential work. Land, sea, and air travel is restricted. Initially set until 12 April, the ECQ has been extended to 30 April in Luzon, the economic and political center of the Philippines. While the government has not deemed necessary to put Visayas and Mindanao in quarantine, local authorities like Cebu City and Davao City have rolled out similar measures in their respective jurisdictions.[5] On 23 April 2020, President Duterte extended the ECQ in Metro Manila, Calabarzon, Mindoro, and other places with high cases of COVID-19 until May 15.

Lao PDR implemented a strict lockdown from 1-19 April, which has been extended to 3 May.[6] People’s movement is restricted to essential and authorized activities. Schools, universities, and most businesses have been closed. Travel between provinces is prohibited.[7]

Colleagues from the ICLEI Southeast Asia Secretariat with offices in Indonesia, the Philippines, and staff stationed in Lao PDR have gathered in this article their initial observations on how the pandemic has affected the transportation of people and goods.

Aerial shots of Katipunan, Quezon City during the community quarantine.

Aerial Photography of City Buildings in Indonesia (Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels)

Social and religious festivities under lockdown

Important social and religious events such as the Lao New Year (13-15 April) and the Muslim Ramadan (23 April-23 May) represent an important opportunity for millions of people to gather, celebrate and travel home.  This year’s Lao New Year, marking the transition in the Buddhist year 2563, was celebrated in quarantine. In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, attention is high for the Holy Month of Ramadan. To hamper the spread of the infection, people are asked to stay home and observe physical distancing. [8]

Public transport and special services for frontline workers

In the Philippines, the national government has suspended all forms of public transportation in Luzon, including trains, buses, jeepneys, taxis, and tricycles, to discourage people from traveling during the Enhanced Community Quarantine.[9] The national government has delegated the local governments with assessing mobility needs and facilitating transport options for essential workers. In most cities, government fleets have been deployed to ferry front liners. Several private businesses, including the utility company Meralco, have also volunteered the services of their own fleets. Pasig City made 100 units of bicycles, originally part of their Bike Share Program, available to their front liners. The city is planning to purchase more bicycles for this purpose. Many other organizations have also teamed up with the local government and donated additional units for deployment.

In the absence of public transport, citizens could only resort to private vehicles – car, motorcycle, or bicycle – and, when possible, walking. However, the critical role played by public transport cannot be replaced fully by private vehicles. People residing within narrow road networks accessible only by tricycles and jeepneys, and individuals with chronic illnesses are particularly affected by the suspension of transport services. To meet the demand for essential travel, Pasig City has recently launched a hotline that enables citizens to reserve municipal e-tricycle services. Special provisions were issued to ensure drivers would observe physical distancing and heightened disinfection protocols.

Similarly to the Philippines, in Lao PDR, public transport services have been suspended, including shared mobility. As a consequence, only individuals with private vehicles can travel within their cities and in compliance with the restrictions of the lockdown.

In Indonesia, instead, public transport services continue with enhanced hygienic standards. In Jakarta, the city administration has formed a special “COVID-19 Response Team” tasked at monitoring and preventing the spread of the infection on public transport. [10]

TransJakarta bus (Photo by Gen Kanai on Flickr

Gojek – an Indonesian transportation startup – driver waiting for passenger. (Photo by Afif Kusuma on Unsplash)

Food supply during the outbreak

The demand for freight transport is growing in South East Asia. This trend is exacerbated by the health emergency, as in many cities, long queues at grocery shops and markets have induced people to rely on delivery services even more. Especially around issues concerning food supply and delivery, local and national governments as well as private operators have shown great leadership and collaboration across the board.

In the Philippines, the transport of goods has suffered delays due to checkpoints placed across Luzon. The supply of fresh produce is particularly affected, creating imbalances in the food supply. In the Benguet Province, known as the “salad bowl of the Philippines” for its large production of vegetables, the fresh produce was in oversupply, and prices went down to the point that products were left to waste. In the rest of Luzon, supplies were instead low, triggering prices to spike.[11] Learning about this predicament, the national government and nearby local governments purchased the vegetables to be included in relief packages for vulnerable communities. Besides, Baguio City and Manila City Government have set up Kadiwa farm-to-market rolling stores in their respective barangays (villages). [12] Pasig City came up with the innovative idea to place mobile farm-to-market shops on wheels. While Pasig city kicked off the initiative by using vans, Valenzuela City adapted this solution to its narrow roads by deploying e-tricycles. Besides avoiding the crowding of grocery stores and public markets, these initiatives aim to tackle food security and mitigate income loss suffered by market vendors.[13]

Groceries and other essential goods are increasingly being delivered on the doorsteps of households. As ride-sharing services have been suspended in many countries in South East Asia, the on-demand transport apps like Grab and Gojek are quickly adapting. Their food and essential items delivery functions have been added or extended, while contactless and heightened hygiene protocols are introduced. Grab is training and transitioning their drivers towards delivery services. In the Philippines, they are collaborating with cities to set up small transport fleets for food and medical supplies.[14] In Indonesia, Gojek is planning to turn its shelters and pick-up centers into “COVID-19 prevention points,” which will help monitor drivers’ health as well as other essential workers.[15]


Implementing a Rapid Emergency Supplies Provision (RESP) Assistance to Design a Sustainable Solution for COVID-19 Impact Areas in the National Capital Region, Through a Public Private Collaboration (Photo by Asian Development Bank on Flickr

Truck in Manila, Philippines (Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Financial fragility of transport providers

The health emergency has unveiled the high adaptability of the transport system but also its vulnerability. Perhaps the most visible immediate impact is on the thousands of drivers who rely on daily wages to survive and support their families.

In Indonesia, following the lockdown in Jakarta, the ojek (two-wheelers) transport services for passengers have been suspended, impacting drivers’ financial conditions drastically. Particularly for those specialized in ferrying people only, income reductions are estimated to be up to 80 percent. Drivers associations are requesting financial aid from the government and hope that larger platforms such as Grab and Gojek would mitigate some of the immediate impacts.[16]

In the Philippines, the ECQ in Luzon is severely affecting about 500,000 jeepney drivers and 200,000 small-time operators. Various transport associations are requesting the government to prioritize mass testing for the transport sector and to provide financial aid. In March, Taguig City announced a cash subsidy to be handed out to about 15,000 registered jeepney, pedicab, and tricycle drivers.[17]

Cities in the Philippines can allocate part of their Quick Response Fund or Calamity Fund to provide immediate support to jeepney operators and owners. Cities can give cash subsidies or procure services such as transport of food and other essential items. However, these measures can only temporarily compensate for the decrease in income. Cities and transport operators will need sound national policies and adequate resources to maintain their crucial services during and after the pandemic.

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