MANILA, Philippines (AP) – The iconic passenger jeepney of the Philippines was one of the first victims of the coronavirus outbreak in the country, with the government imposing a severe shutdown on Manila’s ‘king of the road’ and his thousands of poor sidelined drivers.
The restrictions imposed three months ago blocked most public transport and forced the ostentatiously decorated jeepneys off the road.
Many of the unemployed drivers have resorted to begging on the street, with supplicable cardboard signs on their jeepneys. “A little help please for us drivers,” said a sign.
In a once-crowded passenger terminal in the village of Tandang Sora in the outskirts of Quezon, about 35 drivers have turned their jeepneys into small shelters. They pressed themselves into cooking stoves, a few extra clothes, cell phone chargers, and electric fans to combat the tropical heat and mosquitoes in the cramped passenger compartment where they have lived and slept for months now.
“We have no income now. We have nothing to spend for our children, ”said Jude Recio, a distraught driver with three children. “I hope we can drive again.”
Well before the outbreak started, jeepneys had already been threatened by a government program to modernize public transportation and phase out obsolete vehicles. The diesel-powered jeepneys popular among the working class are coughing up dark fumes blamed for Manila’s notoriously polluted air.
The jeepneys are the result of American military jeeps that were left behind by American troops after the Second World War. Modified and subsequently reproduced, many based on a used truck chassis, the vehicles have been the most popular form of land transport for decades and a showcase of Philippine culture on wheels.
The modernization program aims to improve jeepneys by improving their engines, safety and convenience. Many have electric motors and are called “e-jeeps.” They are larger, safer and more environmentally friendly, but are no longer an eye-catcher.
The government has eased the closure this month to reopen the slumping economy, allowing newer passenger cars to hit the road under strict quarantine regulations. But the traditional jeepneys remain sidelined.
The drivers in the Tandang Sora terminal have started refurbishing their jeepneys in the hope that they can roll back onto the street soon. But they fear that even if they and their jeepneys survive the pandemic, the government’s modernization program will still threaten them with extinction.
“The government should study this program very carefully, because we can’t afford the new jeeps. Many people will lose their jobs, ”said Recio.
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