Shifting baselines

SEARCH FOR TRUTH - Ernesto P. Maceda Jr. - The Philippine Star

On this same date last 2020, there were 218 new COVID-19 cases detected, bringing to 5,878 the total number of confirmed infections in the country. This past week, we’ve averaged almost twice that national toll in our daily cases: 10,868. We now have a total of 904,285 infections.

Milestones to millstones. New normals are rendered obsolete just as they’re created. We adjust, every time, even to the worst news. Failed expectations? We recalibrate. Getting inured to the unthinkable? Progressively, we reset.

We’re all familiar with the character who cocooned at home at the start, only to bust out like a butterfly raring to spread its wings even with the heightened risk. For many, that odd character may even be the man in the mirror.

Pandemic fatigue has compelled reckless conduct. Many have attributed this boundless capacity for self-flagellation to the Pinoy’s vaunted resilience. But there is a scientific term to explain it. “Shifting baselines syndrome” is a gradual change in how a system is perceived, measured, accepted as against previous reference points that are themselves just freshly established.

Without realizing it and without intending to, shifting baselines lead us to underestimate the gravity of the danger. Negatives normalize faster if the sense is that nothing can be done about it. This becomes fatal to our ability to launch more effective responses.

Good problems. As early as May 2020, the US had contracted for 300 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine. As of last week, more than 20 million of these had been delivered. Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden, said the US already has more than they need.

This US glut is indicative of the WHO observation that 87 percent of vaccines have been cornered by richer nations, even as some Third World countries have yet to roll out their programs. Our own experience affirms the prospect of 70 percent herd immunity not from vaccinations but from actual infections. How do you not begrudge the US surplus when hospitals have NO VACANCY signs and doctors are at that terrible point where decisions on who gets treated first may actually sentence the ones not chosen?

From their stockpile, the US will download 2.5 million doses to Mexico and 1.5 million to Canada through bilateral deals. Officially, our government has requested the US to consider also “loaning” us part of their stockpile as they make this late-stage entry into vaccine diplomacy.

Every man for himself bilateral efforts actually disrupt the WHO COVAX initiative for equitable distribution, affecting the targeted 1 billion doses to poorer countries by yearend.

Crucial clarity. There are “breakthrough” cases where fully vaccinated individuals still get infected. This is not unexpected. None of the vaccines claim immunity from infection. The selling point is protection against moderate to severe illness.

There are calls for a separate categorization in the statistics. Among the new infections or among the latest fatalities, which ones had already received the vaccines? Such data help confirm vaccine efficacy and, when confirmed, will reduce hysteria and the disincentive from hazy reports.

The two vaccines with adenovirus vector technology, British AstraZeneca and American Johnson & Johnson (J&J), have had their issues. Denmark has surrendered indefinitely on AstraZeneca. The US has paused the use of J&J, ex abundante cautela. The cause is a purported “strong association” with rare blood clots, especially in younger people.

Gao Fu, director of China’s CDC, admitted that Chinese vaccines do not have very high protection rates. He had to walk back his talk as “taken out of context.” He clarified that he was speaking of all vaccines, not just China. His statements understandably rocked the world of the 20 or so nations that have anchored their programs on Chinese vaccines. At home, with Sinovac at the heart of our public vaccination program, this was disturbing news. But Sinovac’s published studies do bear out their 83.7 percent effectivity against moderate cases and 100 percent protection vs. severe cases and mortality.

The mantra is “trust the science.” But these mysteries make it harder to do that. Apprehension poses a significant hurdle to a people already predisposed to refusing the vaccine. We need the facts. In the end, it’s the vaccinations that matter more than the vaccines.

Eastern powers. Filipinos applaud the victory of Japan golf superstar Hideki Matsuyama, the first Asian born golfer to win the Masters. “Humble” Hideki will be even bigger than Japan golf gods Jumbo Ozaki and Isao Aoki. Matsuyama is not the first Asian to win a major. That honor belongs to Y.E. Yang of South Korea who defeated mighty Tiger Woods at the 2009 PGA championship. Former world No. 1 Jason Day of Australia won the 2015 PGA championship. Of course, his mother Dening Grapilon is from Carigara, Leyte.

On the men’s tour, these Asian wins are breakthroughs. But in the LPGA, Asians dominate the sport. Seven of the world’s top 10 women golfers are Asian. Three of the four majors played in 2020 were won by South Koreans. At this year’s first major, the ANA Inspiration two weeks ago in California, the winner was Thai rookie Patty Tavatankit. This is the same major tournament where local favorite, Japan Tour superstar and last year’s PSA Athlete of the Year Yuka Saso, wound up 50th.

Saso continues her outstanding play this weekend and will indubitably join that top echelon of women golfers. She leads the LPGA Lotte Open in Oahu, with unbelievable first and second round scores of identical 64s. Check out the leaderboard and be proud of that beautiful Philippine flag, next to Saso’s name, alone at the top.

The rally cry for our national athletes uplifts the spirit. Sport serves as a healthy outlet positively impacting on our emotional and social wellbeing as fans. The vicarious enjoyment helps boost our mood and engenders feelings of normalcy. We may be distanced but we are together in supporting our champions.

Every year a victory. Our best April 19 birthday wishes to celebrants Prof. Edmond “Macky” P. Maceda and president-mayor Joseph E. Estrada who continues to inspire by his pushback against his COVID-19 infection.

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