7th September 2021

On July 16, 2021, Secretary to the Cabinet issued eight interventions including mandatory masking and physical distancing on public transportation, to curb the further spread of Covid-19. Zambia is battling its most severe wave of Covid-19 since the country recorded its first two cases in March 2020; hence the call for more stringent measures. By June, 2021, new weekly cases averaging 2,791 had overtaken the weekly average of 1,411 recorded at the height of the second wave in January this year. This surge in cases has been driven by a mix of factors including public fatigue, poor adherence to public health measures, large gatherings due to opening of schools and social events, crowded public transport, inadequate uptake of vaccinations and the spread of new variants.
The call on transport operators to ensure compulsory masking and physical distancing is not unfounded as public transport spaces are high risk environments for the spread of diseases. Buses, for example, bring people in close contact with others, often for long periods and expose them to frequently touched surfaces. Public transport thus increases a person’s risk of getting Covid-19 as being within 2 meters of an infected person for more than 15 minutes increases the risk of infection. This is especially the case in Zambia where public transport vehicles are typically small and often overloaded.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into sharper focus a number of challenges that were already existing in Zambia’s public transport system. For example, our urban public transport is largely comprised of intracity 14 to 30-seater vehicles whose seating capacities have been adjusted upward to accommodate more passengers. For example, a bus designed for 10 passengers will have close to 15 people. Further, Zambia has no standard of leg room, head clearance or seat width for its public transport vehicles. Often, when a bus is fully loaded, passengers are crammed with little or no personal space. This encumbers the ability to practice physical distancing, a key element in the management of Covid-19.
The challenges facing Zambia’s public transport system largely speak to the minimal regulation approach of public transportation in Zambia. The limited focus on public transport quality is a vestigial of the 90s public transport reform period where much of the focus was directed at increasing the seat capacity of the public transport system. The reforms allowed all sorts of vehicles to be admitted into the system with little attention to standards. And the result was a highly deregulated public transport system with all sorts of buses operating without fixed schedules. This is in stark contrast with international best practice where scheduled bus services are the norm. The situation in Zambia is such that bus rides take longer than they should thus increasing the exposure of passengers to public health concerns such as Covid-19.
The order to ensure mandatory masking and physical distancing on public transportation announced by Secretary to the Cabinet should be seen in light of the challenges discussed above. As person-to-person is the primary means of transmission, public transport users must wear masks, since this is one of the most effective ways of preventing infection. Further, physical distancing must be observed as this has been shown to reduce transmission. Evidence from around the world shows that with the right measures, public transport can be Covid-19 safe. However, anecdotal evidence for Zambia suggests that compliance to these measures has been very low. This is characteristic of the highly deregulated nature of public transportation wherein monitoring is difficult as the operators of public transport are too many to watch over.

While we have known for some time that our public transport system needs reform, the pandemic has made this more urgent. In view of this, Zambia should heed to ZIPAR’s past calls to establish scheduled, higher occupancy buses operating on fixed routes. This will be important for limiting the spread of Covid-19 and any other pandemic that may emerge in the future, as organised bus services are easier to monitor for compliance to public health measures. Further, because scheduled bus services operate on fixed routes and follow strict timetables, overall travel time will reduce implying less exposure for patrons. Likewise, Zambia should ramp-up facilities for non-motorised transport (NMT) to encourage commuters to cycle and/or walk, by including more dedicated road space for cycling and walking. When people feel safe – in the infrastructure and equipment– to cycle or walk, they will do so. The Government should be commended for adopting the NMT Strategy to guide the implementation of high quality NMT systems in Zambia. However, the implementation of this Strategy needs to be accelerated in view of the pandemic.
Zambia is facing one of its biggest health challenges in history. Still, Covid-19 whilst causing significant disruptions, is an opportunity for policy makers to do things differently. Indeed, reorganising the public transport system alone will not end the pandemic, but it can go a mile in managing community transmissions. Moreover, it will elevate the country’s transport system to a standard consistent with international best practice.

By: Zali Chikuba and Malindi Msoni

The authors are researchers at the Zambia Institute for Policy Analysis and Research (ZIPAR). For details contact: The Executive Director, ZIPAR, MNDP Complex, Cnr John Mbita & Nationalist Roads, P.O. Box 50782, Lusaka. Telephone: +260 211 252559. Email: info@zipar.org.zm