Lessons from the virus
DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - June 3, 2020 - 12:00am

As we emerge from the coronavirus disease 2019 or COVID-19 lockdown, let us take stock of the lessons we should have learned from the Chinese virus. Very obvious is the need to be better prepared as Taiwan was. Taiwan learned from the SARS epidemic and they prepared to handle a similar future epidemic.

We also experienced SARS, but learned nothing and did nothing. Our attitude towards future epidemics: bahala na.

That’s probably why the top man in charge of our health was in a state of denial about the seriousness of the virus. There must be a lot of good and competent people at the Department of Health who are suffering from bad leadership. We all deserve better.

A good lesson we should learn from COVID is the need to be able to tell how the epidemic is progressing day by day. So far IATF decisions are being made blindly. The ongoing data fiasco is a completely avoidable failure.

The secretary of health obviously didn’t appreciate the importance of accurate and timely data in managing an epidemic. He didn’t prepare for it and is now too proud and defensive to seek help from other government agencies.

Our backlog in validating data on COVID cases, deaths and recoveries is an international embarrassment. The DOH handling of epidemic data resulted in data curves that are all screwed up. Statisticians are saying the data is “dirty” and “noisy” and useless for proper decision making.

A former head of our statistics and census office remarked on Facebook that “All the data we have been seeing from DOH, including our epidemiological curves and daily statistics, are wrong!  Merely categorizing late and fresh cases will not work!!! Right now, we just don’t know where we are, where we have been and where we are going.”

He continued: “… bottom line is there is no way to examine DOH data, as is.  DOH seriously needs to talk with data experts on how to manage the data mess, and to do something. The current ways of reporting are not at all helpful.”

I suspected as much. I early on suggested to a top Cabinet secretary to let the Philippine Statistics Authority review the data and help DOH do the technical side of the counting. Some UP professors tried to help fix things, but they were not getting cooperation from DOH.

There is suspicion that DOH mangled the data to hide the incompetence of the Secretary in managing the epidemic. Their refusal to let outside independent parties like the UP professors provide help supports suspicion they are hiding something.

Maybe the doctors running DOH’s data center are better off going back to treating COVID patients and let the handling of COVID data done by data professionals.

Then again, if the government was better digitized, we won’t have the current problem. DICT is the primary agency responsible for government’s digital transformation. Former DICT usec Eliseo Rio said they were doing something to address COVID-19 telecommunication/ICT responses with help from International Telecoms Union.

Says Rio:  “I was able to mobilize the private ICT sector, under the initiative of ITAP, headed by its president, Carlo Subido, and with support from UNDP, to come up with a COVID-19 central platform that includes a data warehouse and a control dashboard at NO COST to the government.

“This central platform would have integrated and operationalized all data coming from different government agencies and private applications, all now working in silos, so that there will be a timely and accurate analytical visualization of all these data as the basis of effective courses of action for the government.”

With Rio replaced, this project is now on hold because DICT’s top leadership are clueless. As a result, we continue wasting precious time and money to manually extract information from different silos often resulting in conflicting data.

Another victim of COVID is our educational system. That’s why our economic managers prioritized support for the development of remote and online education. But that’s dependent on how fast DICT can implement the broadband project also being ably shepherded by Rio.

COVID taught us the need for an alternative approach to public education. DepEd bravely talks of shifting to an online approach or some hybrid or blended.

But given our rather significant limitations in broadband capacity/reach and available computers for students to use, that’s not going to happen. Nevertheless, it is nice to see this as a priority of the economic team, at least on paper.

Covid also showed how bad our social services infrastructure is. Allocating funds to help those who lost jobs due to the lockdown was the easy part… but getting those funds to those who needed the money most has been chaotic.

That’s reason enough for Sec Karl Kendrick Chua to talk of digital delivery of social protection and financial inclusion (one bank account per family) as a priority of their post COVID plans.

On top of the list of government’s digitization projects is the National ID project. Luckily, that is under PSA, an agency of NEDA. This is a project that Sec Karl has direct responsibility for implementation. It will probably move better now.

One other COVID lesson is the importance of a decent transportation system. If press releases are to be believed, government will finally introduce mind boggling changes on our transport system that seemed impossible to do before COVID. Well… we wish them success for our sakes. But still, to see is to believe.

As I pointed out last Monday, the economic managers presented a great plan in response to lessons learned from COVID. Many of those things are long overdue and thanks to COVID, may finally be implemented. The COVID lockdown gave us a golden opportunity to start all over.

Plans are welcome. Proper implementation, more so. Let us see details like budgets and timelines. Otherwise, the new normal will look pretty old.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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