Safety or livelihood? Coronavirus poses dilemma to bus, taxi drivers

By Long Nguyen   March 19, 2020 | 11:00 pm PT
As the novel coronavirus continues to stalk Vietnam, bus and taxi drivers are grappling with how to stay healthy without losing their livelihood.

Nguyen Kim Chi, a taxi driver in Ho Chi Minh City, had a passenger from Tan Son Nhat International Airport on March 18.

After getting into the car, she tried to keep a close eye on the passenger as she drove to a hotel in District 1.

The man was on his phone, leaning forward sometimes to talk.

She recalls: "I could not see his face clearly because he was wearing a mask. He coughed twice but looked healthy."

Her rule now is that passengers have to sit in the back seat to reduce close contact.

Chi, 35, is one of thousands of taxi and bus drivers in Vietnam facing the risk of contracting the new coronavirus as they go about their livelihood.

A taxi driver waits for his customer in the coastal town of Nha Trang. Photo by Shutterstock/Busurmanov.

A taxi driver waits for his customer in the coastal town of Nha Trang. Photo by Shutterstock/Busurmanov.

Drivers are especially vulnerable since they are in close contact with strangers every day without knowing if they are carrying the virus.

As the driver of a tourist bus between Hanoi and Ha Long Bay in northern Quang Ninh Province, Nguyen Thanh Tung meets and speaks with dozens of tourists every day, most of them foreigners.

Since the disease came to Vietnam, he has never been at ease and taken measures to protect himself from infection.

Last week when several tourists on a Vietnam Airlines flight who had been to Ha Long and later tested positive for the virus, Tung decided to stop transporting foreigners immediately.

"Who knows if the people I carry are infected with the virus."

On March 7 a chauffeur in Hanoi was diagnosed with the virus after contracting it from his employer who was returning from Europe. Before testing positive, the driver had been to several places in Hanoi, and so dozens of people he met have had to be quarantined.

Many drivers feared they were on the frontlines of the pandemic. On a Facebook group for drivers of a ride-hailing service in Saigon, many have asked how to recognize a Covid-19 patient and how to protect themselves.

Hoang Thanh Hung, a taxi driver is Saigon, said, "I reuse my medical masks and I have stopped picking up passengers from the airport since the beginning of this week."

When people are rushing into the shopping spree, many bus and taxi drivers cannot buy protective gear such as face masks and gloves, making it harder for them to avoid infection while at work.

Others clean and disinfect their vehicles more often to reduce the risk.

"A full-time bus driver like me can come into contact with hundreds of people every day," Nguyen Trong Binh, a bus driver in Saigon’s District 12, said. He sprays sanitizers on his seat and steering wheel every hour, "which is never enough."

Many drivers are also afraid of being quarantined in case they come into contact with a suspected patient since it would severely hit their livelihood.

Le Hai in Hanoi has experience of this. Most of his clients are flight attendants of a carrier with its headquarters just next to Hai’s house.

He said: "I got a call from one of my regular passengers last Friday saying a hostess had tested positive and the carrier's flight attendants office was being disinfected. Most people I transport are from that place, so I could be F3."

His company has advised him to stay at home instead of going to work for 14 days. "Two weeks without earnings ... Self-quarantining is a burden," he lamented.

Economic pain

As more and more cases of Covid-19 are being diagnosed, people have been advised to adopt social distancing to contain the spread of the virus.

Many people avoid going out due to fear of contracting the disease, taxi and bus drivers are also seeing a slump in demand for their services.

"I would typically have 30 trips a day before the pandemic, now it is less than 10," taxi driver Truong Manh Cuong said while driving around Saigon’s District 10.

Apart from paying his bills, he also has to pay a monthly installment for his car.

According to the HCMC Taxi Association, the number of passengers in February was 3.6-4.5 million, a 50-60 percent year-on-year decline.

The taxi business in Hanoi has also been hit, according to Nguyen Cong Hung, deputy director of the Vietnam Auto Transport Association. Several transport firms have seen profits fall by half from same period last year while the number of passengers is falling by 15-18 percent every week.

Many are uncertain about whether to stick to their job or find an alternative one since the situation is worsening with authorities in Hanoi and HCMC ordering all amusement places to shut down.

"I have stopped working at night and will resume when everything is back to normal," Cuong said.

Inter-provincial buses waiting for passengers at a station in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Anh Duy.

Inter-provincial buses waiting for passengers at a station in Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Anh Duy.

The falling tourist numbers is leaving bus drivers like Nguyen Van Thuong in Hanoi high and dry. He plies on the route from Hanoi to the northern mountain town of Sapa, and said the number of daily passengers has dropped by up to 70 percent since the first novel coronavirus case was confirmed in the capital on March 6 after the country had gone 22 days without any infection.

Trinh Hoai Nam, deputy director of Hanoi's Nuoc Ngam Bus Station, said most operators have cut their trips from Hanoi to other northern localities by 30-50 percent, leaving drivers with low incomes.

The circumstances will remain since the number of foreign arrivals in the country in February fell 22 percent year-on-year to 1.2 million, and industry insiders expect things to worsen as Vietnam has suspended issuance of visas to all foreigners.

"Since last week no one wants to go to Sapa," Thuong said, referring to a tourist to Sapa who was infected, causing people to cancel their trips in apprehension.

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