In an ideal situation, taxi commuters would be able to keep a metre apart from one another. But “the ideal doesn’t exist”, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said.
At a briefing by the National Coronavirus Command Council on Monday, Mkhize explained the new set of regulations that the taxi industry must follow as the country accelerates towards its Covid-19 peak.
Because taxis cannot operate under the ideal conditions, “we begin to see the need now to put in mitigating steps to try and assist that situation”, the minister said.
Taxis will be allowed to operate at full capacity for short trips, whereas long-distance taxis will operate at 70% capacity. According to the new regulations, drivers may not allow any member of the public not wearing a cloth face mask to board a taxi. Windows in taxis are also expected to be open to encourage ventilation.
Taxi drivers transport 15.6-million passengers a day. The industry accounts for 68% of South Africa’s public transport system.
Therefore, Mkhize said, it is an important industry to monitor closely. “What had to be looked at was what is necessary to sustain the movement of taxis under all the factors that have been considered by the department of transport.”
He explained that some studies show that sitting in confined spaces for more than 20 minutes heightens the risk of contracting Covid-19. Studies also show that ventilation can reduce the spread of the infection, Mkhize added.
A victory for taxi owners
On Sunday night, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the tightening of restrictions as South Africa enters the next phase of its lockdown. Restrictions included the immediate re-banning of alcohol sales and a national curfew between 9pm and 4am.
When Ramaphosa made the announcement, the national confirmed coronavirus caseload was at more than 276 000 cases, with 4 079 deaths. There are about 12 000 new infections in the country every day, the president noted. This translates to about 500 new cases every hour.
According to Ramaphosa, some models project between 40 000 and 50 000 deaths before the end of this year.
But the new regulations signify a victory for taxi owners, who have complained that their profits have dwindled significantly under the previous rules, which limited the number of passengers, even on short trips.
Last month, Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula unveiled his department’s plan to soften the blow dealt to the taxi industry by the Covid-19 pandemic, announcing that the industry would receive a relief package of R1.135-billion.
But taxi associations were unhappy with the proposed package and threatened to flout the 70% capacity rules.
Food security and behavioural change
On Monday, Mkhize assured the public that the decision to change the regulations were made with “a lot of consultation”.
He said that although the original lockdown helped the government to buy time to prepare for the peak, it was not sustainable.
“It would be important for us to consider the issues of food security and income security and ensure that people are able to get their regular income,” Mkhize said. “Because, though there was some work done to provide social grants and various other components for our people, it’s not possible that everyone can live through those grants. And those grants cannot be sustainable forever.”
Echoing Ramaphosa’s sentiments the night before, Mkhize said the “biggest weapon” the country has to fight the virus is behavioural change.
“We are trusting the behaviour of our own people to get us to defeat this infection. It is still possible that you can reduce the numbers of people that are getting infected. But you can never stop the infection.”