According to a survey whose results were released a few days ago, an overwhelming majority of Filipinos — about 84 percent — believe that strict community quarantine measures are “worth it to protect people and limit the spread” of the SARS-NCoV-2 Wuhan Virus and the potentially deadly respiratory disease it causes. This has got to be frustrating for those who have stubbornly inveighed against lockdown policies and advocated a rushed reopening of the economy, as it indicates that Filipinos are, despite their flaws, still pretty good at recognizing when someone is trying to put lipstick on a pig.
The survey was conducted by the Social Weather Stations (SWS) between May 4 and 10, and in all categories — age, gender, educational attainment, location — the respondents decisively supported the imposition of “stay at home” measures by net margins ranging from +50 to +76 percent. The results were all the more remarkable because the survey was conducted after the government-imposed lockdowns over Metro Manila, Luzon and other parts of the country had been in place for nearly two months, and frustrations over lost incomes, lack of access to basic services and sheer boredom were reaching their peak.
How did the advocates of a laissez-faire approach to pandemic control and their cherry-picked arguments against commonly accepted safety measures, such as staying at home and wearing face masks, so badly misread the room when it comes to public sentiment? The answer, it seems, is that the public is capable of reading the yardstick by which risk is measured — the official data on the pandemic’s progress provided by the Department of Health (DoH) — quite a bit more critically than said advocates assume.
Even if the average person is not an expert in statistics and cannot exactly articulate what is wrong with the information being provided by the DoH, its confusing, inconsistent nature and the diffident way in which it is presented are evidently red flags. As a consequence, a large majority of people would evidently rather endure lockdown measures, pain in the ass though those may be, than take their chances with an environment that is not clearly safe.
What the DoH, other government spokesmen and supportive media outlets (including this one, in an editorial on Friday lauding the department for reporting that the fatality rate from Covid-19 has declined) have completely failed to realize is that, of all the data that is provided and spun in the most positive manner, the only piece of information that anyone is concerned about is the number of infections. After all, the measures implemented during the recent lockdowns were described, and for that matter, were self-evident as measures to prevent the spread of infection.
Likewise, the rules in place under the loosened “general community quarantine” or “modified general community quarantine” — mandated mask use, limitations on public transportation capacity, the number of employees or clients allowed in a place of business at one time and exhortations to maintain “social distancing” — are all simply continuations of those measures to prevent the spread of infection. Therefore, the signal to the public that the risk is decreasing, that the “curve is flattening,” so to speak, is a slowing in the rate of new infections.
And as the chart drawn from the DoH’s daily “data drop” shows (see end of this column), that rate is not slowing at all. The heavier dark line depicts the cumulative number of individuals who have tested positive for the Wuhan Virus, while the lighter line shows the number reported daily after test results have been validated.
Because the government has conditioned the population to accept that halting the spread of infection is the practical objective of the various measures that have been imposed — which is actually the correct priority, although the methodology may be debatable — any attempt to steer the discussion away from this single indicator invites skepticism. Data such as the number of recovered patients or the number of deaths from the disease may be interesting, but they are, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant, as is the DoH’s recent, complete meaningless fixation on “new” versus “old” cases caused by the backlog in test validations. The cumulative number of infections is an easy indicator to understand; when the DoH and the rest of the government do not address it, the impression is either that it is trying to cover up bad news or making decisions based on the wrong data.
That sentiment, and the realization that the pandemic cannot, in any way, be described as being brought under control yet is reflected in the recent survey results. Until it is, the practical impact of this would be that the hoped-for reboot of productivity and consumer activity is going to be retarded. People will certainly increase their activity in terms of work and spending, but only to the extent that they feel obliged by need and circumstances to do so. Much of the purely discretionary activity that drives the economy, and which policymakers’ current outlooks depend on to some extent, is going to be withheld for some time to come. Without some significant progress in reducing the rate of infections, the only curve that’s going to be flat is the one representing economic growth.