Martin Scorsese—the director who whets America’s obsession with gang movies—in his 2019 film ‘The Irishman’ inadvertently touched upon the vital cog of commodities: trucks and the American truck union Teamsters.
The unsolved disappearance in 1975 of Jimmy Hoffa, President of America’s largest union Teamsters—they had enormous liquidity with pension funds and it is believed that Las Vegas was built on Teamsters money—is the focal point of the movie based on a non-fiction book and the film acknowledges in narration that many people of this generation may not know Hoffa but in his time he was as popular as Elvis Presley or The Beatles.. “If you got it, a truck brought it to you,” Hoffa would say in most of his motivational and election speeches.
In these Covid-19 and lockdown times, the trucks and their movement have a place of heightened primacy as agriculture produce, vaccines, gas cylinders, medicines and almost everything you get is what trucks bring you and yet not much has been done or reported on the vaccination of truck drivers and the challenge of making essential commodities available to people worldover.
Bad news first: Start of this month, a truck carrying 2.40 lakh doses of Covid-19 vaccine was abandoned for nearly 12 hours after its driver went missing under mysterious circumstances in Madhya Pradesh’s Narsinghpur district. The vehicle registered in Tamil Nadu was headed towards Karnal in Haryana. The air-conditioned container was carrying vaccine doses worth Rs 8 crore. The driver is yet to be located.
German auto major Daimler AG’s Indian subsidiary DICV plans to provide free vaccine to truck drivers at its vaccination centre near Chennai. The company has set up the vaccination centre for the local community at its commercial vehicle manufacturing facility in Oragadam, the Economic Times reported on Monday.
Vaccinations at the DICV site will commence once doses are available; vaccines will be administered by private hospitals and government health personnel depending on the availability, the company said. The operative part being once doses are available. DICV also plans to give the vaccine free to truck drivers of all brands—an initiative that other agencies can follow given its collective spirit.
In January, Tata Motors had announced a new range of refrigerated trucks for the smooth movement of the countrywide Covid-19 vaccination drive. The company claimed that the new trucks are equipped with specialised transportation equipment. The new trucks aim to provide end-to-end transportation of the vaccine. These vaccine trucks and vans are available on the government e-marketplace (GeM) portal for purchase.
Tata Motors said that the new range of vehicles have been designed and engineered as per the temperature, volume and weight requirements. It also added that insulated vaccine vans in the small commercial vehicle (SCV) and Pick-up (PU) range are also on offer for last-mile transportation of vaccines.
Life behind a steering wheel
Let us take the small hill state of Himachal Pradesh as an example to illustrate the bigger problem. Himachal has four large cement factories, it transports seasonal fruits and vegetables to North India and beyond and is a major producer of trout, a fresh water fish, and has over two lakh commercial vehicles [large- and medium-sized trucks] that at times make a return trip from places that are 6 to 8 hours away in Punjab and Haryana. There are no defined and sanatised facilities for the drivers and the awareness is what they gather themselves.
Lekh Ram Verma, former head of Himachal’s Bilaspur district truck operator transport society and presently the President of All India Road Transport Workers Federation’s Himachal unit, says, “We had demanded vaccinations for truck drivers as frontline warriors during the first wave and the lockdown in 2020 given the fact that they ply on long inter-state routes and their movement was essential and unhindered throughout the pandemic. But this was ignored and they are now being vaccinated as per the rules for normal people working from homes or with minimum risk.” He adds with a lot of anguish that no sanitised eating joints, no minimum deposit for families while they are away serving like soldiers in a war bringing essentials to the battling army has been provided, and the responsibility to save themselves is their own.
Truck drivers are living with a slogan often sighted on their back bonnet ‘rab rakha’ [Living on God’s grace], and the corporates that they are serving have not relaxed the to and fro time limit rendering them tired and accident-prone. You can well imagine the situation in major industrialised places with business as usual and no human touch.
Truckers outside India
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) came up with a document weeks into the pandemic about ‘What Long-Haul Truck Driver Employees Need to Know about COVID-19’ and updates have been done to the original document. A few government and independent agencies in the US have done better research papers and groundwork than the CDC. Awareness apart, one can’t say that much has been done to make them safe and treat them as extremely vulnerable.
One of the efforts was a Feb. 25 letter to the director of the CDC from truckstop organization NATSO and major fleet associations calling for truckstops and travel plazas to be designated as mobile Covid-19 vaccination sites and for the vaccine to be distributed to professional truck drivers and truckstop employees.
“Truck drivers should be allowed to receive a vaccine in a state other than that within which they reside due to their length of time on the road and away from home. Truck drivers also must be allowed to receive their second vaccination at a different location, as it is improbable that they would have the ability to return to the primary vaccination site on a specific date or time,” they wrote.
Canada lags in the vaccination drive and last month in the first cross-border vaccination programme the US state of North Dakota lent a helping hand to its northern neighbours by offering vaccines to truck drivers crossing the border from Canada’s Manitoba province.
Dead bodies and trucks is trending around the world in the past 24 hours. As New York emerged as the center of the coronavirus pandemic last spring, the overwhelmed city began storing the bodies of victims in refrigerated trucks along the Brooklyn waterfront, The Washington Post reported.
More than a year later, hundreds remain in the makeshift morgues on the 39th Street Pier in Sunset Park.
In a report to a city council health committee last week, officials with the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner acknowledged that the remains of about 750 Covid-19 victims are still being stored inside the trucks, according to the City, the nonprofit news website. Officials said during a Wednesday committee meeting that they will try to lower the number soon.
Dina Maniotis, executive deputy commissioner with the medical examiner’s office, said most of the bodies could end up on Hart Island, off the Bronx, where the city has buried its poor and unclaimed for more than a century.
“We will continue to work with families,” Maniotis told the health committee, according to the City news site. “As soon as the family tells us they would like their loved one transferred to Hart Island, we do that very quickly.”
With more than a million people buried there, the mile-long land mass in the Long Island is home to the largest mass grave in the United States.
Up to one-tenth of the city’s coronavirus victims may be interred on the island, according to an analysis conducted through a collaboration between the City and the Stabile Center for Investigative Reporting at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. The analysis revealed that at least 2,334 adults were buried on the island in 2020 — more than double the number in 2019.
The refrigerated trucks, which include 85 sent to the city by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, were parked outside hospitals during the worst days of the pandemic for the city, becoming one of the most visible signs of its toll.
The news about the bodies comes as New York City prepares to remove most of its remaining coronavirus restrictions in a move toward a kind of normalcy not seen since early 2020.
Another way to paint the back bonnet could be: “The truck is dead, long live the truck!”