The World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 an international health emergency on 30th January 2020 and a global pandemic on 11th March 2020. Compared to previous global pandemics such as SARS or Ebola, the current COVID-19 Crisis is a global event without precedent, possibly in a generation, and exerts a number of specific impacts over and above conventional disaster management and recovery.
The crisis is as much an economic crash as it is a public health emergency, now exceeding the 2008 Financial Crisis. In the Gulf Consultative (GCC) Council region, major lockdowns on personal and business activity have been compounded by record lows in oil price, on which economic activity and Government budgets are based.
Right now, as we potentially approach a pause in what the International Monetary Fund has called the “Great Lockdown,” the Crisis presents immediate logistical and operational challenges requiring urgent mitigation, with containing the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths being the top priority ahead of economic recovery.
According to The National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP), 80% of these responses are common to all crisis categories, but 20% are unique to pandemic and local circumstances.
Although less severe than being seen in Europe or the USA, the human cost of the Pandemic in the GCC is real and tangible. Over time, the balance and trade-offs between policy objectives is likely to change with the current hard lockdowns giving way to a careful restarting of economic and social activity. This has is already commencing is some parts of the GCC and is expected to continue into June and July, ahead of a restarting of international and regional movement across borders later in the year.
The transport sector, and the public and private organisations within it, is impacted by COVID-19 as much as others. However, it has a vital role in keeping essential goods and workers moving; it will have a vital role in the recovery too, especially if Governments prioritise infrastructure investment as an economic stimulus and a means of re-invigorating the private sector.
As well as challenges, the Crisis presents some positive opportunities. We should not lose sight of what could be done better or differently and how our post-COVID-19 World might benefit as a result.
When people, business and communities recover from COVID-19, we are unlikely to go back to normal – there will be medium- and long-term implications and, whilst there are pressing immediate needs, we should start thinking about those now. There is also a need to be better prepared for future pandemics.
Globally, COVID-19 has taken a massive toll in terms of confirmed cases and reported deaths. The picture in the GCC has been comparatively modest compared to Europe, the USA & China, but cases have accelerated dramatically since March, rising to a peak of infections across the region.
Lockdowns have been imposed in all countries (e.g. National Sanitation Program in UAE, 24-hour curfews in Saudi Arabia), with strong restrictions on personal or work travel except for essential purposes.
There has been a near cessation of international flights, with the travel and tourism sector now shutdown. Economic impacts have been exacerbated by record low oil prices. Despite OPEC production cuts being agreed, prices have been trading at below half the level in January and continue to be volatile.
Central banks, together with immigration authorities, have introduced various economic stimulus packages, support and relief for people and business, but these will take time to kick in and the IMF’ s World Economic Outlook has already forecast sharp declines in growth for 2020, both globally and for the GCC.
This is a perfect storm of circumstances. Recovery from the health and economic emergency may commence in the second half of 2020. This is dependent on many factors which remain uncertain, not least the chance of further waves of infection. The effects of COVID-19 will be felt well into 2021, possibly beyond.
There been sharp and substantial falls in demand for movement as a result of stay home campaigns, curfews, cessation of tourism, business contraction and exodus of expat workers in all countries of the GCC. International and domestic aviation is nearly completely suspended with most national airlines grounded and airports at a standstill, except for air cargo and a small number of repatriation flights.
General traffic is estimated to have fallen by around four-fifths dependent on area, whilst international benchmarking suggests road freight may have halved. Public transport has been suspended in many locations, and, where services are still running, seeing falls in patronage in line with road traffic. For the latter: there are limitations on occupancy to provide social distancing; frontline staff are being provided with masks, gloves and sanitisers against infection; and there has been a stepping-up in cleaning and sanitation of public areas and facilities.
New regulations (and penalties) have been introduced to minimise trip-making and enforce social distancing. At the same time, some regulations have been eased, such as free public parking, suspension of road tolls and support for home deliveries and enabling movement of health supplies.
While there has been slowdown in construction and maintenance projects (e.g. Dubai’s Route 2020, Riyadh Metro) not all impacts are negative. Air quality has improved, congestion & road traffic accidents are likely to have fallen; the question is how such benefits can be retained as demand rises as the lockdowns ease.
Public and private entities across the GCC have closed offices and implemented remote working. For example, they are issuing laptops and implementing ICT to allow employees to communicate. Managers are having to coordinate their teams, set tasks, meet deadlines & achieve performance KPIs virtually.
In transportation, management of frontline staff poses special challenges, in terms of absenteeism, reduced capacity, occupational health and safety and protecting key workers from contracting or passing on disease. Non-essential tasks are being wound down or continuing only with new safeguarding procedures in place.
The role and mandate of transport agencies has been strengthened, operationally being regarded as an essential service alongside health agencies, police, civil defense and supply chain management. This raises a need for enhanced organisational leadership and joint working to common goals across agencies.
Since February, we have been monitoring the impacts of COVID-19 across the GCC, as well as globally.
We are gathering evidence through our own worldwide offices and via our participation in global road and transport sector groupings. We are collating, and influencing, the practices and procedures which are emerging, examining what the key issues are, what seems to work at this time and what remains problematic. The situation is fast-moving; it is still messy, but some clear lessons are already emerging.
Across the World, since the COVID-19 crisis took hold at the end of January 2020, public transport systems have seen sharp falls in patronage. In some cases, services have been suspended entirely or had the level of service sharply reduced. Elsewhere, services have continued to run, but with the general public locked down or subject to strong travel advisories, ridership have become focused on essential workers and those carrying out unavoidable personal business.
Data is still being complied, but in London, buses and trains are carrying only around 20 – 30% of normal demand. Equivalent reductions have been seen in New York, Paris, Singapore and other global cities, whilst in Dubai , the first metro in the GCC was suspended for a period as the National Sanitisation Programme was extended to 24 hours a day, with residents only allowed to leave their homes with an online Move Permit issued by the Police.
Ridership has become more focused on key workers, such as healthcare professionals and auxiliaries, essential operational staff and those working in supply chain activities.
Where still running, public transport faces a number of operational challenges:
• Frontline staff (themselves reduced by increased sickness and absenteeism) must be equipped with appropriate personal protection, such as masks and gloves, and in some cases protected by screens;
• Surfaces in stations and vehicles must be regularly sanitised, with many systems subject to a comprehensive deep-clean;
• The need to maintain social distancing, requires passenger access to vehicles to be regulated, numbers to be maintained well below normal peak capacities and front doors, seats or standing areas to be closed off; and appropriate signage and passenger guidelines to be installed.
• Cash payment presents a high risk of transmission of infection, driving a shift towards electronic or cashless payment with minimal interaction between employees and passengers.
It seems likely that at least some of these measures will be retained as the current period of general lockdowns comes to an end and public movement is slowly reactivated with precautions in place to avoid a resurgence of infections.
Looking into the medium-term, COVID-19 raises multiple issues for public transport. Patronage is unlikely to recover for many months, due to economic recession and as passengers continue to feel anxiety around the health risks of crowded carriages and vehicles. This may sharply affect the financial performance of transit authorities and operating companies and undermine the business case for investment in new or improved services. The design and operational standards of infrastructure, vehicles and equipment is also likely to undergo review, not least to be more prepared for any future pandemic or equivalent threat.
This will require a focus on credible scenario planning, demand forecasting and associated economic and financial analysis. Yet such work will be essential to ensure the future viability of public transport, without which private car ownership will increase and urban traffic and congestion problems escalate as people seek personal protection and isolation rather than mass transit.
Right now, we are in the midst of the Crisis. In the space of six weeks, our world has been turned upside down. It will take all our time and attention for the foreseeable future just to get through it.
We will, however, prevail. This too will pass, and we will emerge stronger and more resilient afterwards.
There are various scenarios for the duration of the pandemic, how it will end, and timing and form of the recovery. Working out how these scenarios will play out in different parts of the World, and via connectivity within and between regions, is challenging. We will need to recognise, accept and manage uncertainty.
COVID-19 is unlikely to vanish as quickly as it arrived; there may be several months ahead where we need to manage residual infectivity as the economy, and the transport system, restarts. After this current wave of global infection, a second or even a third wave cannot yet be ruled out. We will need robust, yet practical, processes, procedures and technologies to be ready and be able to respond effectively.
It also seems inevitable that some of the impacts of COVID-19 will be permanent and transformational. A “new normal” will emerge. This could be positive as well as negative, but how the future shapes up depend on how we approach the task.