Experts fear operating buses at full capacity will increase the risk of further spread of Covid-19
The government is going to allow public transports to run at full seating capacity from the first week of September, even though new daily cases of Covid-19 infections and fatalities are still high in the country.
Health experts say coronavirus infections will surge massively if health safety guidelines are not followed properly in public transports.
Public transports had remained closed since March 26 till May 31 this year as a part of the government's efforts to tame the spread of Covid-19.
However, bus services resumed on June 1, on conditions of operating vehicles at half the passenger capacity and following the health safety protocols.
At that time, the government increased bus fares by 60 percent.
Bus owners are now demanding to operate their vehicles at full passenger capacity and charge previous fares, according to the Roads Transport and Bridges Ministry sources.
The ministry will issue a circular after getting the cabinet's consent in this regard, the sources said.
On August 25, Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader hinted at allowing buses to run at full capacity.
"We will make wearing facemasks mandatory in buses and will not allow carrying standing passengers," he said.
Wishing to be unnamed, an official at the ministry told The Business Standard that all have to abide by health directives in buses. A circular will be issued any day next week, he added.
Khandaker Enayet Ullah, secretary general of Bangladesh Road Transport Owners' Association, told The Business Standard that the ministry has verbally permitted them to operate their buses at full capacity from the first week of September.
"The secretary to the road transport and bridges ministry and the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) chairman told me that they would issue a circular in this regard soon," he said.
"We urged the government to withdraw its instruction to operate public transports at half their passenger capacity. If the government meets our demand, we will take pre-pandemic fares from passengers," he said.
"We have already asked bus owners, drivers and staffers to follow health directives properly," he added.
On August 19, bus owners at a meeting with BRTA officials placed their demand to operate buses at full scale.
They said their demand is logical. As smaller public transports and launches are carrying passengers at full capacity, they also wanted to operate buses at maximum passenger capacity conforming to the health guidelines.
Scuffles over fares
Scuffles between passengers and bus conductors are a regular phenomenon in city buses.
Passengers alleged that bus conductors are charging more than the government-set 60 percent rise in fares during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Asaduzzaman, a businessman who comes to New Market at least four days a week, told The Business Standard, "The bus fare was Tk40 during the pre-pandemic times, but buses now charge Tk80."
When asked about charging double the fare, Khandaker Enayet Ullah of the road transport owners' association, said those are isolated incidents. Most buses are taking the government-set fares, he claimed.
Mozammel Hoque Chowdhury, secretary general of Bangladesh Jatri Kalyan Samity, told The Business Standard that bus owners always violate the government's directives.
"Many buses like Dishari, Shuvescha and Himachal are charging double the fares. The government cannot control them," he said.
According to the BRTA, their mobile courts filed 787 cases against over 100 bus operators, mainly for violating health safety guidelines and charging passengers extra fares between July 22 and August 12.
"We are in fear of fares. The government cannot make the buses go back to previous fares without a strong and clear fare chart. Otherwise, they will take the existing increased fares from passengers. And scuffles will increase on roads," Mozammel said.
Concerns of health experts
The rate of new daily cases of coronavirus infections and fatalities are still high in the country. Educational institutions remain closed, and public examinations like Primary Education Completion, Junior School Certificate exams have been cancelled for avoiding large-scale transmissions.
"In this situation, coronavirus transmission will increase if buses do not follow the health guidelines," said prime minister's personal physician Dr ABM Abdullah.
"We believe it will be impossible to comply with safety guidelines in buses. In fact, the virus has not gone from the country. Therefore, operating buses at full passenger capacity is not a wise decision," he said.
Professor Nazrul Islam, noted virologist and former vice-chancellor of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, told The Business Standard, "If you do not wear a mask, maintain social distancing and follow the health guidelines, the pandemic will linger."
"Around 45 percent of the total Covid-19 patients in the country are from Dhaka city. Those patients are not being isolated. They are transmitting the virus to others," he added.