Pandemic statistics and public welfare

On Aug. 3, Deputy Speakers Bernadette Herrera and Kristine Singson-Meehan, Deputy Minority Leader Stella Quimbo, AAMBIS-OWA Representative Sharon Garin, and Quezon City 4th District Representative Bong Suntay filed House Resolution No. 2075 “Urging the House Committee on Good Government to Conduct an Inquiry, in Aid of Legislation, on the Qualifications, Research Methodologies, Partnerships, and Composition of OCTA Research Philippines.” Among the justifications given for the resolution is “the need to ensure the safety and security of the population… and that information being distributed is correct and are not irresponsibly and erroneously published.”

Many objected to the move of the legislators. Typical among the objections was that of UP sociology professor and columnist Randy David, who considers an inquiry “a misuse of congressional time” and notes that it could be taken as “a form of harassment, a muzzling of independent voices.”

I understand where the concerns are coming from, given the political temper of the times, but I think that the congressional probe is not only proper, but also necessary. I don’t necessarily doubt the COVID-19 projections of OCTA Research. Prof. Guido David and Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, the analysts of the firm who are the most often quoted by the media, seem more than qualified to conduct these kinds of projections. But people have the right to know how a private research group comes up with projections related to the pandemic, especially when these are actively disseminated by the media such that they affect public perceptions and behavior. Besides, scientists and data analysts have been increasingly called upon worldwide to practice transparency and accountability in their research and reporting activities, especially when these activities have impacts on people.

I looked for the methodology of the group in the OCTA Research website, but could not find it there. I have requested members of OCTA Research to share their methodology and look forward to studying it closely. Meanwhile, media outfits continue to report OCTA Research projections, with a recent one being the possibility of 30,000 cases across the country by the end of September.

To be fair, the congressional probe should not be limited to OCTA Research, but should include the projections of the Department of Health (DoH) as well. What is the department’s projection methodology? Why do DoH projections sometimes differ from those of OCTA Research when they are supposedly using common data? Which projections are ultimately used by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF)? Why?

By knowing more about the methodologies behind COVD-19 projections, the public can be educated about the usefulness of such projections and understand the government’s basis for deciding to impose different levels of lockdowns.

The pandemic is literally a life and death matter. In addition, many among the poor think of the long lockdowns as a violation of their right to work and as a slow economic death. Hence, scientific analysis of the status and anticipated future of the pandemic is a matter of grave public interest. People should understand what terms like “reproduction number,” “surge,” “peak,” “positivity rates,” and “flattening the curve” mean for them in practical terms so that they can act responsibly to protect themselves and their communities.

While members of OCTA Research have welcomed the opportunity to explain their methodology to the legislators, Fr. Austriaco foresees the challenge of explaining the technical details of COVID-19 model-building to them. I wish them well in their presentations. I think their explanations on Pandemic Modeling 101 to the House representatives should be heard by all Filipinos in order to elevate scientific literacy in the country.

According to business history, the Japanese educated their managers and workers on statistical quality control after World War 2. Helped by the leading American statisticians of the day, such as W. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran, Japan used the science of quality to achieve the most phenomenal post-war economic booms the world had ever seen.

Let’s face it. If there is one thing the pandemic has taught us, it is that we have to gear up as a nation to prove that we are collectively smarter than a virus. So far, we have not been doing so great. But if we can better understand the science and data analysis related to the pandemic, we will have a fighting chance.

In relation to the upcoming congressional probe, Ranjit Rye of OCTA Research said it well: “We will take the opportunity to explain our methodologies. … [Our] intent [is to] use science for public good. … This is the life of our nation. As citizens, we need to contribute.”

 

Dr. Benito “Ben” L. Teehankee is the Jose L. Cuisia, Sr. Professor of Business Ethics and Head of the Business for Human Development Network at De La Salle University.

map@map.org.ph

benito.teehankee@dlsu.edu.ph

http://map.org.ph

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