By the time the World Health Organisation declared pandemic status for COVID-19 on 11th March 2020 we were already seeing chaos in the transport systems within Low-Income Countries (LICs). India’s transport system effectively collapsed as huge numbers of migrant workers rushed to return to their home villages. Informal transport operators in South Africa used insecticides as disinfectants. Elsewhere ill-informed transport operators continued to overcrowd public transport buses and trains.
We at HVT knew that transportation could have a key role to play in the mitigation of the spread of COVID-19, and in keeping low-income economies moving during the pandemic. But there was limited evidence base on what works, which was leading to general misinformation. We also recognised that many transport institutions in these nations had limited capacity and resources for dealing with COVID-19 hygiene measures and operational matters.
We set out urgently to gather and disseminate critical information. We gathered evidence on what appeared to work and what didn’t and on what the Chinese authorities in Hubei Province did in response to the pandemic. And, we published “A Call for Action on COVID-19” for the transport community. We launched an innovation research programme which received 200 expressions of interest. We awarded 20 research projects from a field of 45 proposals which formed the portfolio of the ‘COVID-19 Response and Recovery Transport Research’.
The research concluded that there is an urgent need to develop transport systems that make transport less fragile and more resilient to future pandemics.
Some of the key takeaways from the research included:
- The restriction of transport services during the pandemic led to losses in livelihoods, transport businesses, taxes and toll revenues. It also caused delays in freight services and a myriad of other disruptions with severe consequences for economies and people’s health and wellbeing.
- Many public transport operators and governments in LICs/ LMICs (unlike those in HICs/ MICs) did not institute all emergency regulations. Oftentimes, this left them exposed to financial risks resulting from legal action by people exposed to COVID-19 in the transport systems.
- Pre-pandemic inequalities related to gender and disabilities widened as a result of COVID-19. Over 85% of women work in the informal sector in LICs. These women were more likely to have lost their sources of income and suffer domestic violence and take on more domestic work during the pandemic.
- Dramatic localised improvements in air quality occurred virtually everywhere where traffic levels dropped as a result of lockdown. Modelling of the links between air quality, transport and COVID-19 in Bangladesh showed that local weather patterns and policy caused great variations in air quality. This can have immediate impact on air pollution and reduce the over 4.6m people that die every year due to poor air quality.
- The research confirmed that there was a direct correlation between increased mobility and increase in spread of diseases thus validating the policy measures that restricted mobility.
- It was observed in HICs that due to lockdown there was a reduction in the number of road accidents, but the number of fatalities increased. This was also observed in LICs. However, the situation was more complex in rural areas in LICs where in some cases both levels of accidents and fatalities increased following the institution of lockdowns.
- In some South Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, public transport restrictions were less comprehensive than India which suspended all modes of transport except for transport for essential goods and health workers. In southern and East Africa, cross-border restrictions led to freight disruptions and shortage of essential goods. In West Africa many hand-to-mouth transport workers protested against lockdown despite cash-strapped governments distributing limited ‘palliatives’ in the form of food and essential supplies.
- In Nigeria, the pandemic became a force for innovation and change amongst transport workers who developed new businesses, increased the use of IT technology, and improved sanitation systems and enforcement at transport hubs.
- People in seven African countries felt strongly that, despite the inconvenience of social distancing and capacity restrictions, daily commute and travel was generally more comfortable and safer due to fewer passengers. They suggested that this, alongside other measures that promote safety and reliability, could be made more permanent.
- Through research in Cape Town, Uganda and Nairobi, we learnt much about active transport. This included what is required to improve walking and cycling policy but also on the important role Tactical Transit Lanes can play in rapidly growing LIC cities.
The pandemic is still with us and in many LIC countries there is concern about the new waves of infection and mutations of the virus. It is important that the transport sector continues to innovate and piece together the evidence for ongoing response and eventual recovery.
It is our hope that this body of evidence will now lead to more research and recommendations to re-build better as we continue to emerge from the devastating impact of COVID-19.