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March 23, 2020

Paramedics, other essential staff find no way to commute as transport disappears

Karachi

March 23, 2020

After several ride-hailing companies closed their operations throughout the city after the lockdown orders of the Sindh government, staff of essential services, especially paramedical staff, many of whom do not have personal vehicles, felt uncertain about how they would be able to travel to hospitals.

As there was no mention of the ride-hailing companies’ operations in the initial lockdown order, some drivers were confused whether they would be allowed to operate during the lockdown.

Government officials, in the meantime, gave conflicting versions on the operations of the ride-hailing services from today onwards. Speaking to The News, Karachi Commissioner Iftikhar Shallwani categorically denied granting permission for the ride-hailing services to operate.

When asked if the paramedics could use these services, he responded that the paramedical staff might use them “but there has to be only one paramedic passenger in one car and the passenger has to show his or her medical card.” This created confusion because if the ride-hailing services have been told to stop operating, how would their drivers be available for the staff of essential services.

The commissioner has also directed all the food delivery services to shut down their operations across the city. In case of any health emergency, the commissioner asked the citizens to call an ambulance, not any ride-hailing service.

A notification issued by the Commissioner Office in the late hours of Sunday read that all public transport buses, taxis, rickshaws, and ride-hailing services such as Uber, Careem, SWVL and Airlift were not to ply on roads.

Meanwhile, South Deputy Commissioner Irshad Ali, who had been in talks with different ride-hailing companies for delivering food items to daily-wagers during the lockdown, also shared that he was no more pursuing the idea of such collaboration and the operations of all the ride-hailing companies would remain shut.

The stance of Regional Transport Authority (RTA) Secretary Nazeer Hussain was, however, different. He adopted a lenient approach and shared that the mobility of the ride-hailing services would be allowed in the city in case of an emergency.

If the law enforcement agencies stop such vehicles, he said, the passenger and the driver will have to establish the need of their mobility. It could be a medical emergency or for a job purpose. “Those who could not establish their need will be strictly dealt with in accordance with the Section 144,” he warned and added that both the passenger and the driver could be arrested in that case.

The RTA secretary asked the drivers of the ride-hailing companies to make sure that there was a genuine emergency before accepting any ride, or else they could land in jail. “No one will be allowed to wander in the city.”

Essential services’ staff

The ban on ride-hailing services seems to be problematic for the staff of essential services who do not own private vehicles. Bilal Hashmi is a doctor at a large private medical facility in Karachi and is worried about his mobility during the lockdown. “I generally use ride-hailing applications to reach the hospital as I don’t have a conveyance of my own. With the lockdown, my mobility would be a problem,” he said.

Likewise, Muhammad Uzair, who works at the emergency of a medical facility near University Road, was perturbed about his commute. “With the closure of the intra-city transport and ride-sharing services, it would be very difficult for me to reach my hospital,” he said and added that his hospital had not announced any arrangements for transportation.

Meanwhile, Pakistan Young Nurses Federation President Aijaz Kelehri shared with The News that his federation had made sure that the administration of all the local government hospitals would provide transportation or accommodation to the nursing staff at the hospitals or hostels.

“As for those are who don’t have their means of transportation and are not staying with the hospital, we are running buses for them on special routes,” he said and added that such staff members would be picked up from the stops nearest to their residences.

The general secretary of the Pakistan Society of Anaesthesia, Dr Kashif Iqbal said on behalf of a private hospital that the management of bigger medical facilities must be making arrangements for the mobility of their medical and paramedical staff.

The staff of other essential services and media persons who do not own personal vehicles were also trying to find how they could reach their offices in the absence of public transport and ride-hailing services.

Sibte Hassan works at a private television channel and has no conveyance of his own. He was worried about his mobility despite the fact that journalists and medical practitioners were exempted in the lockdown. “Earlier, I used to travel in SWVL, Airlift or on Bykea. With the suspension of all these services, it’d be really difficult for me to reach my office,” he said.

Puzzled ride-sharing services

While some ride-hailing services such as SWVL and Airlift announced that they were shutting down their operations, others such as Careem, Uber and Bykea seemed confused. The Bykea public relations officer shared with The News that they had already witnessed a sharp decline in their services as most of the cities had been partially locked down lately. As for Karachi, he said, they had planned to continue their home delivery services on Monday and in case of any emergency, their driver could offer rides as well.

Careem Communication Head Madiha said the company would follow all the directions of the Sindh government. She added that as per their conversation with the Sindh transport department, their service could only be availed in case of an emergency.

As for Careem’s delivery service, she said as per her knowledge, it was allowed and if the Sindh government asked them to shut it down, they would comply with the directive. Similarly Uber Communication Head Hyder Bilgrami asked the riders and drivers to follow the advisory of the government and only travel outside it was necessary.

“We are always working to help keep everyone who uses Uber safe, and remain in close contact with local authorities. We will continue to follow their guidance, and act at their request, to help prevent the spread of coronavirus,” he said.

The SWVL’s service has been temporarily suspended across the city, according to its general manager, Shahzaib Memon. “We will comply with the orders of the Sindh government and if after 15 days, the situation improves, we will resume our services,” he said.

Memon, however, shared that their corporate services would continue. There are a few corporate organisations that use their service, he said, adding that they would continue such operations.

Hurriyeh Iftikhar, the brand head at Airlift, said they suspended their operations in the city staring March 19 till April 5. If the situation improves and the lockdown is lifted, she said the company would resume its operations under secured protocols.

Meanwhile, Murtuza, the operation head of Foodpanda, a company that delivers food from eateries, told The News that their operations would continue in the city as the lockdown order said nothing about the suspension of their delivery system.

He said as per the notification of the Sindh government, shops of essential items will remain open, so will their operations. If the Karachi commissioner or law enforcement agencies clamp down on their riders, they would have to discontinue their services, he said.

His conversation with The News, however, occurred before the notification issued by the Commissioner Office that stated that the exemption given for the home delivery of food items from restaurants had been withdrawn.