FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - July 9, 2020 - 12:00am

Harry Roque was wrong when he declared some sort of victory over the projection of coronavirus cases done by a team of UP experts. He was wrong on several counts.

When he declared “victory” over the projection last June 30, our caseload was at about 38,000. The UP team projected 40,000 infections.

In the first few days of July, the DOH reported thousands of new cases, a lot of them “late” cases. That means that by June 30, we did hit the projected number -- except that they had yet to be officially reported. On top of that, many deaths in June were officially tallied only this week.

Harry Roque was wrong. The UP projection was right. That is sad, but that is the fact.

On another level, he is wrong declaring victory over a statistical projection. No one really means wins, whether the projection stands or falls. Never argue against mathematics.

The end-June projection offered by the UP team of experts is based on large data. It is an extrapolation of a trend. If the trend is not altered, the extrapolation holds.

The real failure in the numbers we now see is that the trend has not been altered. The infections are not being contained. They are being dispersed nationwide – which is different from containment. It simply means the universe of further infections is wider.

Numbers released the past week, including the highest daily total since the pandemic began, are hardly comforting. They appear to indicate infections are surging.

There is more news that should make Harry a bit more harried.

Dr. Guido David, speaking for the UP team, projects our caseload to rise to 65,000 by the end of July. Then it goes up to 100,000 by the end of August.

We should all be very happy if Harry Roque declares “victory” at month’s end. That will mean we are altering the trend rather than simply looking at the month-end totals.

This, too, is true. Experts estimate that 3.6 million Filipinos would have been infected had we not decisively locked down when we did. No complex guessing here. That is based on an exponential rise in infections, unmitigated by hard countermeasures.

This is where Harry should have celebrated “victory.” But that would have been completely tone-deaf. The lockdown did bring untold misery to millions of Filipinos.

We have reached a point where there is no choice but to learn to coexist with the virus. We simply could not afford another lockdown. Over the last three months, government contracted about P1.22 trillion in emergency borrowing. That would more than double our debt-to-GDP ratio.

In the coming months, international financing might not be as readily available. As the pandemic rages, every government on earth will be borrowing from the same limited financing sources to support their spending on boosting health systems and providing stimulus for their economies.

This is the reality on which any strategy to deal with the pandemic and its aftermath should be grounded.

Data management

When the last minor outbreak of infections happened in Seoul, the impressive contact-tracing apparatus of the South Korean government swung into action. The hub of the infections was traced to a bar in the city frequented by gay men, a clientele that tends to be discreet about where they go and what they do.

Using mobile phone applications and credit card records, the health authorities were quick to identify possibly infected individuals. Those individuals were contacted and checked. The outbreak was contained.

We have not achieved the sophistication of South Korea’s contact-tracing apparatus. That apparatus enabled the country to manage the health emergency without going into lockdown.

We certainly do not have the awesome technology China has deployed to contact-trace and isolate the possibly infected. When a small outbreak happened in Beijing a few weeks ago, tens of thousands were quickly tested. That outbreak, too, was immediately contained.

That awesome technology piggybacks on the array of devices comprising China’s surveillance state that includes facial recognition apparatus and a lot of artificial intelligence. Most daily transactions are conducted by the use of mobile phones as the means of payment. Individual movement is regulated through phone apps.

It will take us many years to build up such an array of sophisticated digital systems. Any move in that direction will likely be challenged by our vociferous human rights advocates every step of the way. Therefore, in the next pandemic, we will likely rely on manual tracing as we are doing now.

The DOH is not only relying on highly manual methods, the agency does not seem to have the capacity to manage its data well. The numbers we get lags by at least a few days. We get very little sociological and demographic information about the cases. We are not sure if we have any realistic contact-tracing system in place.

Now, as infections surge, the DOH is telling us they will change the reporting system, possibly including the categories used. Perhaps the agency should take the matter out of the hands of physicians and give it to properly trained social scientists.

Without enough information on the demographics of the infection, it will be difficult to trace and isolate. When infections happen at a certain magnitude, even contact-tracing becomes futile.

See what is happening in the southern and western states of the US. With the volume of new cases each day, now nearing 60,000 a day, it is impossible to contact-trace.

We are nowhere near that hopeless situation, of course. But we must keep our guard up.

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