The shambolic manner in which the government has approached the question of pillion riding during a pandemic seems emblematic of the way rules are imposed and disseminated willy-nilly on a long-suffering public.
Since a Luzon-wide lockdown was imposed in March, pillion riding on motorcycles has been banned to prevent the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
Now, the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Diseases (IATF) says back or pillion riding on motorcycles for couples who live together will be allowed as long as there is a protective shield between the riders.
In announcing the decision last week, the spokesman for the IATF, presidential spokesman Harry Roque, said only married spouses are allowed to ride together.
Asked if siblings and live-in partners are covered, the spokesman said no, because the clamor—at least initially—has been to allow married couples to ride pillion.
Later on, however, the vice-chairman of the IATF, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, said cohabiting couples are also permitted to ride, adding that the National Task Force may also consider allowing live-in partners from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community to back ride.
“We'll start first with married couples, common-law husband and wife, and live-in partners,” he told CNN in Filipino.
The barrier for the motorcycle could be similar to a prototype plastic shield proposed by Bohol Gov. Arthur Yap, the IATF spokesman said.
“There will be a handle and the barrier will go higher than the driver’s head so we can ensure no saliva droplets are spread,” he said in Filipino.
Couples must also wear face masks, helmets and observe the speed limits, the officials added.
Año said married couples will be asked to present IDs or marriage certificates at quarantine control checkpoints or to law enforcers, while common-law partners must show documents proving they share the same address.
"There must be a proof somewhere, probably an ID with their address [to show they] are living in the same address," he said. "They can actually get a certificate from the barangay that they are living in that particular house."
Those who fail to comply with these requirements will be punished in accordance with applicable rules and regulations, he added.
Local officials and some lawmakers have been urging policy makers on the COVID-19 response to lift the ban on back riding, given the need for affordable transportation for lower-income families, particularly given the limited public transport options available, even under a general community quarantine.
The IATF’s response, however, makes unnecessary impositions.
Senator Ralph Recto, for example, questions the efficacy of a barrier when the couples “hold hands in going to the motorcycle and kiss each other goodbye after the ride.”
Installing such a barrier on motorcycles, he says, is about as “effective as installing a concrete road divider on the matrimonial bed.”
“Isn’t the protection offered them by the motorcycle barrier during the day cancelled by their intimacy at night?” he asks.
He also suggests that the barrier might compromise the roadworthiness of the motorcycle and thus threaten the safety of both driver and the passenger.
Party-list Rep. Ronnie Ong agrees, saying the divider requirement needs to be scrapped.
“I don’t see any reason why a divider or a shield is required for couples who eat, sleep and even take a bath together. That shield just presents a major hazard on the road,” Ong says.
He adds that this requirement to place dividers on motorcycles is now the subject of complaints among riders who say it has become a convenient excuse for corrupt traffic enforcers to extort them.
On the balance, given the need to enable more people to get back to work, it is probably a good thing to allow pillion riding so long as it involves persons living in the same house. Differentiating married couples from everybody else in a household just adds another layer of bureaucracy on a public long-suffering a surfeit of rules. And the barrier? That’s just trumpery we don’t need.