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Editorial Opinion

Behind the numbers

When the Department of Health (DOH) disclosed last July 30 that it carried out a “mass recovery” adjustment, it gave the impression of a government papering over the many, many cracks caused by their refusal to deal with the crisis in an appropriate and immediate manner. The record-high amount of “recoveries” reported are meant to paint a facade of success and of progress. On the contrary, it instead served as a damning picture of the country’s current state and a reflection of how the people in charge—who are meant to look after the most vulnerable in the country—view the situation. 

It harkens back to a very popular meme of an anthropomorphic cartoon dog, who despite sitting in a room being engulfed in flames, insists that there is no problem, saying somewhat comically, “This is fine.”

However, things are clearly not fine, and the situation we face on a daily basis is far from the rosy, “we are winning” narrative that is being fabricated and fed to us.

To be counted under the “recovered” tally, the DOH implemented a “time-based reckoning” system that considers “mild and asymptomatic patients who have completed 14 days of isolation”. While the department maintains that time-based tagging follows international standards, there is still a concern on data quality as these adjustments are only reported every Sunday, making analysis of trends difficult and inaccurate.

Proper data collection and interpretation is important in ensuring that implemented policies are aligned to the problems they aim to address. Meddling with these numbers to perhaps bring a false sense of relief completely disregards the formality of the system, and the human lives that lie behind the numbers being monitored. 

The meteoric rise of reported COVID-19 cases in the past month is mind-numbing. Nearly a month after the mass recovery adjustment, the situation appears to have worsened. August, in particular, has been a record-breaking month for the country: last August 2, reported COVID-19 cases soared to 100,000, and breached the 150,000 mark just before the Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine period ended last August 12. Just a month later, on September 11, cases surpassed 250,000 as labs began to catch up with submitting testing data.

Despite the increase in testing capacity in the Philippines, the daily positivity rate, or the percentage of COVID-19-positive individuals out of everyone tested, has not seen a sharp drop. Ideally, an increase in testing capacity should result in a decrease in the recorded positivity rate, as people who are more likely to have come into contact with the virus are being tested first. However, as of September 10, the Philippines’ positivity rate still remains above 10 percent, double the five percent threshold set by the World Health Organization. 

As it stands, the Philippines has the highest number of total cases and active cases in the Southeast Asian region—this, despite the mass recovery program in effect. On the daily, the number of new cases reported has consistently been in the thousands, moving more and more toward averages of over 3,000 new cases per day. In the months prior, such high values would have been astounding—record-breaking, likely—but now it has almost become the norm, which may lead others to become more desensitized to how atrocious the situation actually is.

Numbers are not just numbers. Behind the thousands who passed away and the tens of thousands still combating the disease are individual lives—these people are someone’s sibling, parent, grandparent, friend, partner, or child. 

The more that we come to realize the value of a human life—and the devastating gravity of losing one—the more exasperating it is to think that the numbers are simply being reported without being used to spur authorities into effective response. The statistics are becoming more of a “for-your-information” update than as a sound for alarm, a wake-up call for action, and a definitive basis for effective policymaking. Public officials must find a way to keep these numbers down, rather than let the extreme values be seen as just another day in this prolonged quarantine.

These government positions are not just placeholders; these lives are not just mere statistics. As long as we remain in this situation, we are not winning anything.

By The LaSallian

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