COVID-19 economic impact on transport services minimal in Brunei, says ADB report

Azlan Othman

The impact of COVID-19 on Brunei Darussalam’s transport services-related gross domestic product (GDP) and employment is minimal, according to Asia Development Bank’s (ADB) recent report titled Guidance Note on COVID-19 and Transport in Asia and the Pacific.

In describing its short impact, ADB said the sultanate will contract up to 2.27 per cent of transport services GDP, while for a large impact, the magnitude is 4.68 per cent.

The percentage of transport services to employment will hit some 2.53 per cent for short impact, while for a large impact, the magnitude is up to 5.27 per cent.

The report said that the transport sector is particularly vulnerable in countries where it makes a significant contribution to GDP and employment, such as Cambodia, Fiji, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Transport is a key sector in most Asia and Pacific economies. The transport sector’s gross value in ADB member countries is estimated to be USD2.8 trillion, or about four per cent of GDP.

Data from the International Labour Organization indicates that about 157 million people are employed in the transport industry in ADB member countries, of which 52 per cent are in road and railway transport services (including pipelines), while 17 per cent are in the wholesale and retail trade and automobile repair.

ADB also highlighted restrictions on transport and mobility of ADB member countries including Brunei Darussalam’s travel ban.

In mid-March 2020, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) announced a travel ban for Brunei citizens, permanent residents and foreigners holding valid identification cards (ICs) except in cases of medical treatment, attending court hearing or to continue studies.

All travels are subject to approval from the PMO. Travel applications must be sent through e-mail to [email protected], with the scanned copies of the documents.

ADB also said that flights operated by Royal Brunei Airlines (RB) also remain limited to a few countries.

The pandemic’s impact on passenger and freight transport has been profound. Mobility restrictions in response to COVID-19 has resulted in drastic changes in travel behaviour. The sharp reductions in economic activity have also curbed regional and national freight transport activity. Urban freight and logistics, on the other hand, have prospered in many places, because of the increased online shopping and food deliveries.

The overall picture that emerges is one of a sharp decline in transport activity after lockdowns or other forms of restrictions were imposed in the second half of the first quarter of the year.

Transport activity bottomed between mid-April and mid-May, after which a gradual return to pre-COVID-19 levels can be observed following a relaxation of restrictions, either because the virus has been brought under control, or because governments argued that they had no choice but to re-open the economy even though the virus had not been brought fully under control.

Concerns over close physical contact have also impacted the perceived quality and attractiveness of different travel mode choices. While public transit may previously have been perceived as an efficient and affordable mode of travel, initial trends in cities that have re-opened have indicated that public transit is still considered to be unsafe relative to the use of private vehicles, cycling, and walking, and is not bouncing back as quickly.

For passenger movement, systems gradually open up with enhanced sanitation, face mask protection, thermal scanning, and tracing measures. Many urban transport systems are relaxing social distancing measures to ensure sufficient capacity.

For Brunei Darussalam, in an updated guideline issued during a press conference on August 13, the Ministry of Transport and Infocommunications (MTIC) said that public transport operators are allowed to operate 100 per cent vehicle seating capacity from 50 per cent previously.

However, public transport operators and passengers will still need to comply with the guidelines set by the Ministry of Health (MoH), which include providing a BruHealth QR code at the entrance and inside the vehicle. Passengers are required to scan the Bruhealth QR code, and only those with green and yellow health codes are allowed to board public transport.

The wearing of a face mask is a must on public transport throughout the journey. The drivers (and bus conductors) are advised not to accept passengers exceeding the seating capacity, as well as additional passengers.

COVID-19 has put the transport sector in Asia in an extraordinary situation, as the sector has been caught up in a big way in the public health, economic and humanitarian crisis that has arisen across Asia.

Substantial work lies ahead for all transport stakeholders – including governments, private sector, citizens, and development partners – to work together to navigate a way out of this crisis in an environment of tremendous uncertainty and high stakes.

The pandemic has struck at a time of ongoing global challenges in Asia, such as climate change, an ageing population and rural–urban migration. Drastic behavioural and lifestyle changes have been adopted on a global scale almost overnight.

This has shifted the way the people work and live, and has consequently redefined the transport needs and posed a new and complex array of challenges. The disruption and associated uncertainty can bring about significant change, and a pressing question is whether this represents a new normal or whether the transport sector will rebound to business as usual.

The future of the transport sector post-COVID-19 will be heavily influenced by how long and deep the economic recession will be globally and in Asia. Initial hopes of a quick, 2020 economic rebound are starting to fade, and it is increasingly likely that full economic recovery will take longer.