Social distancing norms affects taxi business

The economic sector has been hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak. In order to contain the spread of the disease, many businesses, including the taxi service, have to maintain social distancing.

Taxi drivers are allowed to pick just two passengers that are seated in the front passenger seat and one in the back seat. However, most taxi drivers pointed out how putting a passenger next to the driver and the second passenger in the back seat would really help in social distancing, as the proximity between the front passenger and driver is close. They have instead suggested for the two passengers to be seated far apart from each other in the backseat.

Most taxi drivers are the sole providers for their families, and life has been hard as they earn far less now. A taxi driver said, “We understand that this needs to be done since the government and His Majesty are doing everything possible from their side, and we can only do so much from our side as well.”

The Bhutan Taxi Association (BTA) Chairman, Rinzin Chophel, said that BTA is being criticized on the social media and other platforms for making decisions unanimously. Allegations had been made by specific name calling to the chairman and the association for the current measures that had actually been instilled by the government.

He added that BTA only stands to serve and represent the taxi associations throughout the 20 dzongkhags as a unit. He said that some of the taxi drivers are unaware that the decision was passed on from the government.

He said, “We are running the association almost voluntarily and with little to no monetary objectives.  Some people have a notion that BTA is teaming up with RSTA and Traffic police to make things harder for them, but that is not the case as we are clearly following orders from health officials, ministers and others to implement social distancing.”

BTA is aware of the fact that taxi business income is drastically low, and he said that it is inevitable, the world over, given the current situation. He said that His Majesty The King has been really busy and travelling despite just having had the second Prince born a month ago, and that taxi drivers have to resist to the current situation and hope for a favorable outcome once the pandemic settles down.

Upon observations made by the taxi drivers in Thimphu, another problem they have to endure is the even and odd number plate system, which leaves them carrying two passengers for just 15 days in a month. They stated that some of the taxi drivers are devastated that they don’t even show up to work.

On this, Rinzin Chophel stated that the Information and Communications (MoIC) minister, Karma Donnen Wangdi, gave the decision implementation of social distancing in a meeting with about 30 taxi drivers including BTA chairman, RSTA officials, traffic police representative.

He said that they were briefed on carrying out even and odd days of working in order to further enhance social and physical distancing, and the minister had mentioned that if many drivers crowd at one location then there would be groups mingling among each other.

He said that the Lyonpo had also directed to do so since the taxi parking space is being renovated and that there was lesser space, which would mean further compact group formations among them. Following the meeting, RSTA and BTA distributed the notice to all the drivers within Thimphu, Punakha, Wangdi and Paro, as per the MoIC minister’s directives.

The BTA chairman added, “We have been asked to prioritize on health grounds, and that is what we are doing, according to the parlances made by His Majesty and the Prime Minister. In case the situation prolongs, we were assured by Dasho Penjor and Zimpoen that there will be assistance provided to the taxi drivers. Perhaps in terms of loan waivers, deferring or other ways.”

BTA is currently in the process of tracking down all the taxi drivers for a survey regarding problems faced by each individual. In terms of rent and other problems, Rinzin Chophel stated that the drivers should not expect the government to solve all problems during such a global health pandemic.

According to some drivers and commuters that the paper interviewed, there are times when passengers are overcharged on local (reserved) rates even at regular hours like 8:30 am – 9:00 pm due to the lack of taxis at the taxi stand.

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