Take out politics from COVID-19 pandemic

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

A few weeks after the outbreak in March last year of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-2019) pandemic reached our shores, a core group of professors from the University of the Philippines (UP) in Diliman, Quezon City decided to make sense of the statistics and data coming out from the Department of Health (DOH). They are professors, with Ph.D. attached after their names or post-graduate degrees in sciences and mathematics, who decided to do public service in explaining to the public the behavior of COVID-19 contagion through exact science and mathematics.

One of them, UP political science professor Ranjit Singh Rye first referred to their group as “UP-OCTA Research Team.” In fact, the UP-OCTA Research Team made their maiden splash in an article of The Philippine STAR 34th anniversary special in July last year. It was then Rye, along with Dr. Guido David of UP’s Institute of Mathematics, who officially bared OCTA’s coming out when they “decided to do research that nobody else was doing.” Dr. Michael Tee, vice chancellor of UP-Manila and professor in the College of Medicine at the UP-Philippine General Hospital (PGH) also joined them.

In that STAR article, Rye explained: “We call ourselves OCTA, to differentiate ourselves from the other UP groups. It was fitting because we started with eight people, and we were supported by a company that is called Octa.”

“Eventually, we were joined by more members — faculty and alumni from UP, and even a team from UST (University of Santo Tomas) that heard about our work and said that they were doing modeling of their own — so why not work together?” Rye pointed out. Rye particularly referred to Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, a Filipino-American Catholic priest who is a visiting professor from Providence College, a Dominican-run college in Rhode Island in the United States tied up with UST. Fr. Austriaco is a molecular biologist and theology professor.

The OCTA Research is based in Barangay Matandang Balara or Old Balara in Quezon City. As they intended it to be, Rye described UP-OCTA Research as “alternative” voice and “independent” source of information about the COVID-19 cases in our country.

On April 8 this year, the OCTA Research observed its first founding anniversary. Last Wednesday, we have all four of the founding fathers of OCTA Research, Rye, David, Tee and Austriaco as our featured guests in this week’s Kapihan sa Manila Bay zoom webinar. One year after, the OCTA Research has been largely associated with forecasts and analyses of the COVID-19 cases in our country.

The firm prides itself as specializing in giving public opinion research, qualitative and quantitative research, policy research and advocacy, and training and capacity building. According to OCTA Research, they offer “comprehensive, holistic, accurate, rigorous, and insightful data analysis to help our clients in government, the private sector and the NGO (non-government organizations) community.”

Since then, Rye cited, the OCTA Research has established its own niche, with the two existing major opinion pollsters in the country, namely, the Ateneo Social Weather Station (SWS) and the Pulse Asia, as their “benchmarks.” The two pollster firms conduct regular surveys on political and socio-economic issues, either commissioned (paid for by subscribing party) or non-commissioned (they are the ones funding the survey on their own initiative).

Last February, the OCTA Research released their first ever commissioned survey by one of the potential candidates in the coming May 2022 presidential, vice presidential and senatorial elections. So OCTA Research is giving the SWS and Pulse Asia a run for the money in opinion surveys and mock polls.

But for now, Fr. Austriaco disclosed the OCTA Research is deep into modeling patterns of the past COVID-19 cases to enable them to forecast how it will behave in the future. Lately, he cited, the OCTA came up with the national strategy for vaccination on “how to optimize the scarce anti-COVID vaccines supply” in the Philippines.

At the Kapihan sa Manila Bay virtual news forum, David noted with relief that their regular OCTA monitoring of COVID-19 cases have shown “definitely” the downtrend after the surge three months ago in our country. However, David conceded the averages from daily attack to positivity and reproduction rates are still far from ideal, especially at the National Capital Region (NCR) and are now classified by the DOH as “moderate risk” areas.

Dr. Tee, on the other hand, warned about the “alarming” high mortality rate based from the OCTA Research analysis during the COVID surge in our country from March 1 to May 11. Dr. Tee noted that the total reported COVID-related deaths for that period was at 23.9 percent. This is about three out of 10 patients a day dying from COVID. Calling them as “viral lessons,” Dr. Tee urged the national government to continue ramping up its anti-COVID facilities and vaccines supply.

At one point in time last year, OCTA got angry reactions from presidential spokesman Harry Roque who strongly took exceptions to their projections of COVID cases at the high side. Roque challenged OCTA would fail in their projections, citing the government has been ramping up its anti-COVID responses to control the spread of the pandemic in the Philippines.

On July 23, 2020, on UP’s website posted this disclaimer: “The findings and recommendations in the report are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the University of the Philippines, University of Santo Tomas, Providence College, or any of its units.” Thus, Rye announced, “to shield” the state university from political backlash, UP has been dropped from their trade name.

Under their “mayor’s business permit” issued in September last year, they are now just called OCTA Research.

Moving forward, Rye called upon the government “to take out politics” and get all sectors in the Philippines “on the same page” in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.



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