The Long View: Shotgun approach puts everyone at risk


Shotgun approach puts everyone at risk

Even as a new strain of swine flu with the potential to infect humans has been reported in China, COVID-19 remains everyone’s focus. Last June 28, the Inquirer, in reporting the World Health Organization’s observation that the Philippines had the fastest rise in COVID-19 cases in the West Pacific, further observed that 66 percent of the nationwide COVID-19 cases’ total have taken place since May 15, when quarantine restrictions started to be loosened.

For its part, the government proclaimed victory — not having reached the 40,000 cases predicted by the University of the Philippines, “Hairy” Roque, the former and present Palace spokesperson crowed from his perch; the total as of June 28 is 35,455. Then again, the June 29, 2020 COVID-19 Philippine Situationer reported cumulative testing output as follows: 706,856 samples tested; 651,459 individuals tested; 46,272 positive tests, with a positivity rate of 7.1 percent (what keeps these from being Roque-busting numbers is that it can’t be said the positive tests are the same as individuals who registered positive).

There continues to be a ramping up, we’re told, of testing. The question is whether the results trickle in in time for the government’s claim of having, say, beaten the UP prediction, to be based on timely data or not. Back in June 14, Andrei Martin Diamante in Australia noted that it takes the Department of Health on average more than 16 days to confirm a case of COVID-19 from the onset of symptoms. (Some statistics: Of these, 42.7 percent obtain positive results before the patient dies; 39.4 percent had results released after the patient died; while 17.8 percent had missing dates.) Note the missing dates: In Diamante’s Snapshot Dashboard for the Philippines (based on official data of reported confirmed cases), 8,843 cases had data quality issues related to missing city or municipality, no address data at all, or missing province and/or municipality; 7,590 cases had data quality issues ranging from reporting recoveries without recovery dates, releasing results before receipt of the specimen, confirming results before releasing results, fatalities reported before the actual fatality date, etc. Another 154 cases lacked age information. All these merely underscore what has been repeatedly reported: The data-gathering, reporting, and management as a whole by the authorities leave a lot to be desired.

Diamante noted, on June 27, that the backlog is increasing: “Latest DOH data drop shows that backlog for unconfirmed positive test results has reached more than 9K for the first time. Backlog for untested samples has also increased significantly to 8K, the highest since 20th May, and 80% of the untested sample backlog is with Makati Med.”

The pattern, then, is this: As more testing takes place, the more we find out, and we see patterns emerging as to where there are more (diagnosed/reported) infections; but there continues to be problems with results being held up in backlogs, and the results having a disturbingly large percentage of missing data. The closest analogy I can think of is of our officials being in the combat information center of a warship, having to rely on radar that suffers from glitches (incomplete or inaccurate data) and a time lag in results (so you are getting some information on time, others on a delay). You can imagine that the best you could say about the information is that it’s patchy.

Still, this is an administration that has never gone for precision but literally the shotgun approach. So we get shotgun results. The government can even make a case for its approach being as good as any other more precise, data-driven one: Japan, Singapore, and other places are experiencing a COVID-19 resurgence, for example. But outbreaks such as among construction workers in Taguig, and anecdotal infections taking place among household help and other workers who commute — at greater-than-usual inconvenience and often at prohibitive cost — point to where the present dispensation’s casual attitude toward details is contributing to contagion.

After data researchers, looking at cellphone mobility data, debunked the government’s blaming outbreaks on our being a nation of scofflaws (it turns out, from our cellphone-saturated society where there are more cellphones than Filipinos in the Philippines, “the Philippines definitely has less movement in retail, recreational, and transit spots during the lockdown,” as Diamante pointed out on June 24), the inescapable conclusion is that the government is not making it easier for the citizenry to maintain social distancing or keep from getting infected.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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