Coronavirus deals heavy blow to Lebanon's bus drivers, now unable to turn a profit

For 15 years, Khaled Fadous has driven a rented taxi van between Lebanon’s capital Beirut and Tripoli in north. Coronavirus put him out of work temporarily, but now, he says he won’t be going back to work, given the requirement that vans can only run half full, meaning he no longer makes a profit.

“It’s better to sit at home, because you won’t cover your expenses,” Fadous said. “What are you going to be able to put away?” he said. “You need 30,000 [Lebanese lira] in fuel going and coming, and the rent of the van is 40,000.” At the current exchange rate, which has suffered significantly due to rising inflation, 30,000 lira is around $7.

For two months, the vans and buses that normally provide cheap transportation from Beirut to other areas of the country and between different neighborhoods within the city were ordered to stop running amid lockdown measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Now, as the country gradually reopens, the buses and vans have been permitted to start running again at reduced capacity, but many of the drivers are staying home, saying that the new regulations make it impossible to break even, while others are pushing the rules by continuing to crowd passengers in.

For Fadous, a driver from the impoverished town of Wadi Khaled near Lebanon’s border with Syria, and others who rent their vehicles driving is no longer profitable.

“The van takes 14 riders, and how do we work? We pick people up and drop them off, pick up and drop off. In normal days, yes, there’s a profit,” he told Al Arabiya English. “But now you can only take seven riders, and how much does each one pay? From Beirut to Tripoli maybe 4,000-5,000 Lebanese lira,” the equivalent of $1 or $1.25 at the current street exchange rate.

Read more: Food prices in Lebanon spike by 55 pct as locals struggle to feed families: Report

Since the country’s civil war, Lebanon has not had an organized, publicly funded transportation system. Instead, an informal system has grown to fill the gap, with a patchwork of private operators. Most drivers work as independent contractors without a fixed salary.

At Cola, an informal bus station in Beirut that sends buses and vans to outlying areas of Lebanon, some drivers were back to work earlier in the week, but the number of drivers and riders remained small. While most of the drivers wore masks, only about half of the passengers did, and while most of the vans appeared to be adhering to the 50 percent capacity rule, some did not.

People commute in taxis and buses in Beirut, Lebanon June 15, 2017. (Reuters)

People commute in taxis and buses in Beirut, Lebanon June 15, 2017. (Reuters)

Mustafa Fakhereddine, who drives from Cola to the town of Naameh in south Lebanon, was back to work. He complained that in addition to only being able to drive half-full, the drivers are now limited to working three days a week because of new regulations adopted during the lockdown that allow even and odd-numbered license plates to drive only on specific days.

Read more: Coronavirus lockdown more harm than help for Lebanese who can't afford to stay home

Still, since he owns his own van and doesn’t have to pay rent, Fakhereddine said he will keep driving for now.

“The ones who are renting, they won’t be able to make money at all,” he said. “Most of them gave the cars back to their owners and left.”

Iman Shaar, who lives in the town of Aley in the mountains and commutes to her job as a filing clerk at a hospital in Beirut, said she had been driving to work for the past two months, but prefers to take the bus due to the expense of car maintenance and repairs and because “I’m not courageous in driving.”

She took the bus Tuesday for the first time since the lockdown began on March 15, to find that the price of her trip had increased from 2,000 lira to 3,000 and she now had to wait longer to find a ride.

“The bus came, but I had to wait half an hour,” she said.

As for the coronavirus, Shaar said she’s not worried about it. She was wearing a mask, but only for the benefit of other passengers, she said: “It’s to respect other people, only…for people not to be afraid of me.”

Tammam Nakkash, a transport systems expert and founding partner of TEAM International, a Beirut-based engineering and management consulting company, told Al Arabiya English, “Worldwide, mass transportation has been hit very hard by COVID-19 because of the requirement of distancing.”

But he noted countries with formal public transportation systems had been able to adjust to the COVID-19 threat by changing schedules to reduce crowding putting up protective barriers to protect travelers.

“In Lebanon, it’s a quite different situation, because we don’t have organized transportation,” he said. “…The whole thing is informal, and now you cannot be formal in an informal situation.”

The idea of social distancing on a van or shared taxi, Nakkash, said, is “ridiculous.”

Knock-on effects

Chadi Faraj, founder of the Rider’s Rights NGO, which has launched a campaign to help drivers who lost their livelihoods, said he believed bus and van drivers should have been considered essential workers like healthcare or grocery store workers.

The government forced the buses to stop running during the lockdown, as they weren’t deemed essential workers.

Read more: Informal workers in Arab world hit hardest by coronavirus, unlikely to get help

As a result, healthcare workers and others depending on mass transit were harmed, as they were forced, in some cases, to turn to expensive taxis to get to their jobs.

“The transportation system, even if it were running less frequently, is essential in any community or city,” he said. Rather than shutting down the system altogether, Faraj said, the government and municipalities could have helped with measures like sanitizing the vehicles before and after trips.

There have been some – largely unsuccessful – attempts to create a formalized public transport system in Lebanon. The latest, the planned $300 million World Bank-funded Beirut Rapid Transit project, aims to build dedicated bus lanes on the highway between Beirut and its northern suburbs and plans for a fleet of 120 buses to run on the line, as well as 250 “feeder buses” running between main stations and outlying areas.

While the coronavirus crisis has made people around the world more wary of public transportation, Nakkash said he does not think the pandemic will put a stop to the rapid transit project.

“We are starting from nothing,” he said. If anything, he said, the epidemic highlighted the need for a regulated transport system. “It’s a pro rather than a con against public transport.”

Commuters travelling in a taxi look at the remains of burned tires during ongoing anti-government protests in Jal el-Dib, Lebanon November 13, 2019. (Reuters)

Commuters travelling in a taxi look at the remains of burned tires during ongoing anti-government protests in Jal el-Dib, Lebanon November 13, 2019. (Reuters)

Meanwhile, for the drivers in the current system, Fadous, who was put out of work even before the coronavirus because of protests and accompanying road closures, said, “If the situation stays like this, we’re all going to be sleeping on the streets.”

Like many of the out-of-work drivers, he got assistance of 400,000 lira from the government last month, but it didn’t go far.

The authorities, he said, should “give us an alternative – if they don’t want the vans to go, give us something else, give us work, give us help, give us anything. They haven’t left us any door open.”

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