Unmasking the numbers

When asked to contribute to this column, Elaine Tan, my former colleague in a Malcolm Law, in the Bureau of Immigration, and in Philippine Airlines, did not hesitate to share her insights on statistics shared by the Department of Health. Below is how she looks at the current government response—or lack of it—to the pandemic.

“Six months into the community quarantine, much of this administration’s strategy to address the pandemic is for everyone to continue to lock themselves up while waiting for a vaccine. Continued self-isolation while hearing depressing news of a drastic drop in the economy with an unprecedented unemployment rate, is not much of a strategy to curb the spread of the virus. In my Facebook feed, about 70 percent is related to the pandemic (this includes reactions to supposedly unrelated government policy), 20 percent is on pop-up online businesses of friends and others that were mostly established as a result of the lockdown, and the remaining 10 percent is the regular FB news of family and friends. Even in conversations, the main topic is always about how each person manages the situation, comparisons with other countries, and the increasing frustration on how our government is addressing the pandemic.

According to the web site endcoronavirus.org, the Philippines belongs to the “countries that need to take action” along with India, Indonesia, and the United States. As of this writing, there are 65,240 active cases and 3,688 deaths due to the coronavirus in our country, based on the data of the Department of Health. Apparently, the number of active cases serves as the sole basis for the decision on whether to shift to a stricter or more relaxed community quarantine classification for specific areas. It is interesting to note that despite the strict lockdown measures imposed among residents, our borders remained open and we continued to allow the entry of repatriated individuals without enforcing quarantine measures. In the most recent modified enhanced community quarantine in National Capital Region, the travel restrictions were even eased to allow immigrants into the country. This is possibly the reason why our numbers struggled to improve despite the longest lockdown in the entire world that lasted from mid-March to May. This theory is supported by the failed outcome of the Balik-Probinsya Program, which led to the spread of the infections in provinces that had previously no cases prior to the implementation of the program. Arguably, there is a high correlation of infections to strict border control and quarantine measures.

Strict travel restrictions had been the key factor of “successful” countries like New Zealand, Taiwan, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. These countries also had an effective database that recorded statistics of key factors such as age, sex, special populations (i.e., pregnant, race, whether the subject is a foreigner or not, etc.). Here in the Philippines, our database had fairly improved to include demographic data by age, where we can see that the bulk of the infected age groups fell under the 25-29 bracket, with almost an equal number between males and females. This group likewise comprised the highest rate of recoveries. On the other hand, while the 60-69 age group comprised only 7.6 percent of the total cases, this group accounted for 28.1 percent of deaths due to the virus. This data justifies the stricter measures enforced upon the senior members of the population. There are also other “comforting” statistics such as the number of individuals tested (2,539,354) with a positivity rate of only 10.6 percent, which may, however, give rise to a false sense of security in that this may be interpreted as only 10 percent of “suspect” individuals turn out to be actually infected. This is far from the truth, considering that these tests were mostly voluntary in that these were given to those who had money to pay for tests, regardless of the presence of symptoms or being exposed to an infected person. Unless mass testing can be carried out, and a truly representative number of residents can be tested, the accurate number of infected persons in the country, particularly those who are asymptomatic, cannot be determined.

Some factors relating to travel restrictions include data on infected persons who came from abroad, or who took part in the Balik-Probinsya Program, or the number of persons who turned out to be infected (positive cases) during the quarantine period. Also, while our government had recently mentioned that most infections were transmitted inside workplaces during meal breaks, no data had been presented to support this claim. The recent requirement on mandatory wearing of face shields also do not have supporting data except the claim that it “reduces” the risk of transmission, and that ‘excessive’ protection is better than less. On the contrary, recent articles show that the incorrect wearing of face shields actually increases the risk of infection. (Note that no instructions to care for face shields have been issued by government authorities). The same holds true for plastic barriers in jeepneys and establishments such as restaurants and banks, and most notably, the required motorcycle barriers between driver and passenger, which has been shown to be more dangerous for the safety of passengers, from causes other than the Covid virus that it will supposedly guard against.

So six months into the pandemic, and the government’s only proposed solution is to wait for the vaccine, which no one knows when this will happen if it will happen at all. As no one has a monopoly of knowledge and solutions, I believe it is never too late for our government to regroup, and to consult especially the brightest and the best, and consider more science-based approaches in curbing the spread of the coronavirus.”

In the Bible, Proverbs 11:14 tells us, “Without wise leadership, a nation falls; there is safety in having many advisers.” Anyone can be an adviser, especially from a well-meaning Filipino like Elaine Tan, who, incidentally, has a degree in law from Ateneo and a degree in statistics from the University of the Philippines. Leaders should listen to comments, criticisms, and suggestions, as no one has the monopoly of knowledge, except, of course, our Almighty God.

A former infantry and intelligence officer in the Army, Siegfred Mison showcased his servant leadership philosophy in organizations such as the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, Malcolm Law Offices, Infogix Inc., University of the East, Bureau of Immigration, and Philippine Airlines. He is a graduate of West Point in New York, Ateneo Law School, and University of Southern California. A corporate lawyer by profession, he is an inspirational teacher and a Spirit-filled writer with a mission.

For questions and comments, please e-mail me at sbmison@gmail.com.

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