Covid-19 Outbreak and the Transportation Industry – Effects, Challenges and Prospects

Covid-19 Outbreak and the Transportation Industry – Effects, Challenges and Prospects

From time immemorial, transportation services have been an absolute necessity for businesses and governments to operate successfully. Businesses rely on transport systems to fulfill purchase orders, likewise people who need to move from one place to another in a timely fashion. Consisting of several sectors, from airlines, to marine and logistics, the industry is ultimately the backbone of any economy. 

On the 27th of February 2020, Nigeria’s first Covid-19 case came into the country through the Murtala Muhammed International Airport. This is not surprising considering how the airport is a foremost transport hub in the country. 

Since that first case, the country has witnessed a surge in Covid-19 cases, two phases of lockdown in metropolitan areas like Lagos State, Ogun State and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja which spanned five weeks. Railway services have also been suspended and major international airports in Kano, Enugu, Port-Harcourt, Abuja and Lagos were closed to international flights.

On the 4th of May 2020, the lockdown was eased on the condition that Nigerians adhere strictly to social distancing guidelines and mandatorily use face-masks in public spaces. The ban on interstate travel placed by the Federal Government remained.

The pandemic and lockdowns have disrupted the economy as a whole and strained the operations of every sector in the country and the transportation industry is sadly not left out. All modes of transport have experienced a drastic drop in patronage in the five weeks of lockdown and restriction on movement. The nation has witnessed a decline in road, rail and flight activities occasioning huge revenue plunge.

According to Biodun Otunola, the Managing Director and Chief Executive of Planet Project Limited, in his interview with THISDAY, Nigeria has over 80 million people utilizing public transport daily. He explained that if the impact of the lockdown is assessed on the average national fare of N150 per day, it amounts to a total of N3 trillion for the period of five weeks. He stressed that the public transport sector and supply chains linked to transportation have been the most affected by the pandemic and the lockdown. 

For aviation, there is the nose dive of revenue and grounding of about 120 domestic aircraft nationwide. Nigeria’s Aviation Minister, Hadi Sirika, said the sector has been losing N21 Billion monthly since the outbreak of Covid-19. He attributed the huge loss to the lack of activities in the sector which solely depends on flight operations for revenue. Similarly, Bankole Bernard, the former President, National Associations of Nigerian Travel Agencies (NANTA) reports that in the first two months of the global lockdown, the Nigerian travel industry lost more than N180 billion and thousands of jobs.

Even ride-hailing services have taken a hit. Bolt halted ride-hailing activities during the period of the lockdown and turned to deliveries while Uber suspended its operations entirely following the restriction order.

Although intrastate movement has been lifted by the government, interstate travel remains closed and there is no gain saying the loss both interstate and intrastate workers have incurred from the periods of lockdown and thanks to the continued ban on interstate travel. As a result, some transport companies have turned to staff retrenchment and pay cuts as a means of staying afloat during these times. 

What are the challenges to getting back on track?

Covid-19 pandemic has thrown nations, Nigeria inclusive, and their entire transport systems into what is perhaps the worst situation ever experienced by mankind. Perhaps even worse than the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic with which it shares similarities.

That pandemic spanned two years and witnessed the crippling of economies. Interestingly, modern transportation helped the Spanish Flu spread quickly and extensively. The virus was spread around the world by infected crews and passengers of ships and trains and severe epidemics occurred in shipyards and railway personnel. As William Osler was credited with observing, the flu never traveled faster than modern transportation, confirming that it was human bodies and not some ethereal atmospheric force that spread it. In like terms, if we are to go by the emergence of the first recorded Covid-19 case in Nigeria, we will acknowledge the role of modern transportation in the spread of the virus.

Modern transportation, be it road, rail or ubiquitous air travel is a great enabler of the spread of a pandemic. By itself, it will also challenge the economy’s ability to rise out of the debris of Covid-19. Thanks mostly to lack of solid public health strategies for dealing with infectious diseases as soon as they are first detected and how they can be managed without disrupting transport activities. 

With the easing of lockdowns, will people put their lives at risk and jump into cramped buses or opt for private taxis and driving their own cars? Wealth disparity in society will rear up as a challenge for those who are unable to afford private transport and do not own cars. Thus, with citizens unwilling to put their lives at risk, the transport industry faces the challenge of ensuring safe means of commuting for the masses.

The transport industry will no doubt continue to feel the financial impact of the crisis as there will be a decline in passenger volume on public transit causing reduced revenue for transport operators.

The pandemic has also accelerated activities that will have a lasting effect on transport systems long after the pandemic is over. Activities such as working remotely, on-line and distance learning, home delivery of goods and services and electronic commerce will continue to alter the course of transport systems and the challenge will be how transport systems can leverage these disruptions.

Since it is unlikely that mass transportation can operate full carrying capacity while still adhering to social distancing, providers will need to restore trust by putting health and safety measures in place, like changing the layout of buses, trains and other conveying apparatus to reflect social distancing. These will have to be done despite declining revenues.

The fate of the transport industry lies on how we can rise out of these challenges.

Are there any prospects for the transport industry?

In spite of it all, the industry is presented with certain opportunities that can help to make a positive shift in its broader business approach.

First, because people are likely to go out less, considering the emphasis on social distancing, remote work and flexible work conditions, stay-ins will put less pressure and strain on transport networks and the government can take this time out to develop transportation infrastructure that will improve mobility, supply chain, and distribution of goods and services. The window can hasten road and rail projects across the country to ensure better intra city and interstate movement. This will no doubt reduce the congestion, traffic situation and strain on road travel.

Secondly, an opportunity presents itself for the industry to focus on other areas of revenue generation asides those obtained from flight operations and transport fares. The industry can strengthen, facilitate and grow intra-Africa trade, regional traffic, commerce and tourism with other African counterparts.

Thirdly, the industry needs to be proactive and bridge the gap that the Covid-19 pandemic has opened by ensuring adequate professionalism in the industry and putting in place modern transport policies and facilities that will reflect health and safety guidelines on every transport network. These health guidelines will ensure passengers trust in the public transport system. It can leverage on technology by incorporating touch-less facilities into the transport system especially at airports. Because if we have less physical contact with surfaces and people, the less the spread of infections. In view of this, because transportation and mobility are important for sustainable growth, a review of the nation’s National Transport Policy is imperative to achieve a better economy whilst putting health and the environment into consideration.

Ultimately, although the transport sector has been hit hard by the pandemic, it also presents the window for the right structures to be put in place, so that post-Covid-19, Nigerians can enjoy a better and safer transport system.



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