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Monday, September 21, 2020
Home Op-Ed Columns Opinion on Page One The old normal and confirmation bias

The old normal and confirmation bias


HAPPY Birthday to my daughter, former Manila Times columnist Nicole.

I wonder what changes resulting from the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) will be permanent, transient or partial. As President Rodrigo Duterte himself has been consistent about, he will only lift all restrictions when there is a vaccine. It does not mean other leaders and countries will act the same. Obviously, United States President Donald Trump and some Republican governors are not and that is to America’s peril. Others who have succeeded like Hong Kong where I presently am, daily routine seems nearly normal but just for the people who are here. Yet here in Hong Kong it is a strange old normal in the way it is conditioned on boundaries and exclusion and inclusion. This near normal is not available to others who want to come but are restricted from doing so. Also, many of those who are here want to take a break from Hong Kong but cannot go anywhere or if they can, have to deal with a mandatory quarantine for now upon their return.

I headed back to Hong Kong three weeks ago and while entry to Hong Kong is restricted to citizens, residents and those with work visas (with exceptions for those needed for critical projects like engineers and experts and so on) until further notice, even those who arrive have to take a full saliva test upon arrival and wait six to eight hours for the result. If you are positive for the virus, you go directly to the government quarantine center and if negative go home for your mandatory quarantine. I suppose that is why except for three days, they have had zero locally transmitted cases for over 60 days, a record similar to that of Taiwan, Macau, Thailand and Vietnam. With Malaysia, South Korea, Japan and most of China having only nominal cases. Their own varied approaches worked beyond flattening to elimination or nearly so. Actually, by global standards on a per capita basis, the Philippines and Indonesia are doing okay. It is that we are in the model area of the world. So, we would look good if compared to other countries in America or Europe, but in Asia others are better. It is like saying we are the bottom of the class in the honor section, versus being top of the class in the regular section.


Cabin fever feel

I am done with the mandatory quarantine here and have been at work in Hong Kong since last week. It actually felt good to wear suits and on some days a tie and see clients, eat out, go to the gym and most pleasantly have a massage and a proper haircut over the weekend. This hard-fought victory has come at a price and, as I previously noted, also means once you are in, you cannot really travel out, which for people in a city-state like Singapore or special administrative region like Hong Kong is unusual. In Hong Kong and Singapore, every trip out is an international one, even if it is just to cross the boundary. Hence, the hope for the deserved easing soon, as for now what used to be a customary short hop as many would do to Taiwan, Macau or Shenzhen is not allowed (though that is expected to change by July 7).

Many here have a cabin fever feel but, as I tell them, it is still so much more pleasant than the lockdown like the Philippines and other countries have had to impose. With the exception of no travel out, it does feel a lot more like the old normal than elsewhere. It is like a reverse severe acute respiratory syndrome as this time Hong Kong is one of the safest places but the outside is not. For example, all concerts in New York are canceled until January. Broadway, Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic have all canceled their fall seasons and will tentatively start in January. In Hong Kong, the HK Philharmonic still expects to have its fall season.

Testing prior

There are calls from organizations like the International Air Transport Association to allow testing prior to departure as they have fairly argued that a 14-day quarantine upon arrival is akin to a travel ban with the resulting travel being at levels equivalent to that under a travel ban with, as there always are, exceptions for meritorious or special cases, like experts or those with skills necessary for important projects and returning citizens and residents. Some countries implement that. See the articles on Thailand, Taiwan and Vietnam opening up to inbound foreign travel and all that assumes testing prior as they know they cannot practically impose a lengthy quarantine but need to maintain the safety they fought and sacrificed for. Also, see the clearly defined exemptions for experts and to complete critical projects.

Entry and exit restrictions on travel and quarantines are expected to change soon and in phases, among the more successful countries in Asia. Talks between Thailand and Hong Kong will commence in the next two weeks on how to open mutual travel, including for tourism, between the two with a business travel bubble possible this month and leisure travel perhaps in early August to provide a late summer respite. Reading the same in Taiwan and other countries.

Seems opening is beginning among the star performers, with business travel first then leisure soon following, if all goes well, without quarantines but with health protocols in place like a full Covid-19 test before departure and in some cases RPT or full tests upon arrival or shortly after and in some cases restrictions on visitors using public transport and limits on where to go. Like Thailand is opening up Bangkok and five beach areas like Phuket and Koh Samui so there can be easy monitoring and shutdowns if needed. They are eliminating quarantines because if you came from a country with no local cases and going to another with no local cases, a quarantine would be unnecessary if you already had a test prior to departure that confirms you are clear.

Hence, it may be time for the Philippines to at least lift the quarantine restriction if you already got a test prior to departure and as my esteemed fellow columnist Ben Kritz suggested, initially limit this testing prior privilege to countries that have more than flattened the curve like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea, Japan and parts of China.

Lives and livelihood

I hope the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) can consider testing prior to arrival, monitoring and lifting of quarantine for those who comply. Why? Again, lives and livelihood, not lives or livelihood. I am aware of major industrial projects that were ongoing but are on hold with the resulting cost escalation due to delays because engineers who have the expertise to supervise critical phases of the construction and testing as phases reach completion are not allowed in. The proponents are patiently talking to the IATF-EID and I hope they start to show some consideration.

I don’t like writing about my work as it can be self-serving, but I will in this case so I describe situations I am certain about. Some of the transactions I am working on and have been dealing with remotely are now getting to a late or final stage. In the case of my possible deals in other Asian countries, in Thailand, Vietnam and Taiwan, we know we will be able to get there soon and have in-person meetings. However, I do have work in the Philippines where the potential investors and buyers to finalize whether to do it or decide on terms, have to visit the companies and meet management in person. Would you buy something, especially if a sizeable stake, and invest large amounts without seeing the company and meeting its owners and management? Well, it is not like there aren’t alternatives elsewhere and as you can see from the rules of other countries they make exceptions for engineers (Vietnam and Hong Kong, to give just two examples) and business investors and without having to go through quarantine just need to take a full Covid-19 test prior.

Hope there is flexibility forthcoming as major projects may suffer cost escalation through delay, while still servicing the debt associated with them continues and commencement of operations and cash flow are delayed. Investments may be canceled and replaced by equivalent transactions elsewhere due to the one-size-fits-all approach to travel restrictions we impose. Though countries that have eliminated new Covid cases like Hong Kong, Taiwan and Vietnam have allowed exceptions by providing exceptions for experts and those needed to keep critical projects and investments going. There are real and major financial consequences coming if some rational flexibility is not granted. Lost investments, debt restructuring and so on may result.

Seems there are localized old normal and global new abnormal. When will they harmonize? Not as long as the discordant notes from conspiracy theorists and the virus equivalent of climate deniers continue. Generally, there is a consensus on what to do and all Asian countries with variation have adhered to it with degrees of success. Some more successfully than others, usually by finding very effective local ways to adapt and effectively implement proven practices suited to their particulars. There is no outright failure in our part of the world like what one is seeing in the Indian subcontinent, Sweden, the US and some countries in Latin America. Until there is an effective and widely available and affordable vaccine, there will not be harmony on how to deal with this. Why?

Confirmation bias

What is this? It is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor and recall information that confirms or supports one’s prior personal beliefs or values. It is an important type of cognitive bias that has a significant effect on the proper functioning of society by distorting evidence-based decision-making. (Definition from Wikipedia.)

Read some columnists and politicians who either believe are “persuaded” to a certain view or mindset and are too proud or biased to change their mind. Everything they argue is in favor of their viewpoint and are not open to facts and arguments that contradict that point of view. They may go to the point of not just excluding evidence but even quoting weird and fringe sources because they support their bias rather than weigh whether the view is correct or whether it is time to change it. Or why their sources whether self-published books, whose points are repeated by no one respected or weird conspiracy theory fake news or fringe and biased so-called news sites are all they can rely on. Or taking opposite positions to those taken previously if this time the object is their enemy or opponent. A real simple analogy is some religious people are taught not to question. Most secular folk like me start with an open mind constantly question and are open to changing views.

Science takes the same approach. Humility and acceptance in the face of better evidence, facts and experience allow us to try to progress by being open-minded. I had an online debate with some right-wing Fil-Ams a few years back and the people following it laughed as I demolished their arguments so easily. Why? It wasn’t that I was smarter or wiser (though I also thought I was). I told them you looked for answers that support your arguments and points so were blind to their pitfalls and flaws. I looked at what the answer should be by examining varying arguments and reasons. I start with a question and end with an answer. They start with an answer and tolerate no questions. That is why I have no problem with the US surgeon general initially saying masks are superfluous for regular use, leave them to health care professionals.

That was based on what they knew then about the virus and similar ones. When it turned out that mask-wearing advocates in Hong Kong, China and most of Asia were right and the West was wrong, what happened? The US surgeon general changed his position and now advocates masks as further evidence showed that was the correct advice. Thus, being a medical expert who bases his decisions on science and evidence, he reversed course because the facts told him to. If he believed in confirmation bias, he would grasp for proof of the opposite, denigrate critics, turn it into a social or political issue as some of his political superiors have unfortunately done.

Look at that more secular Europe. They did what was the best decision and shifted as evidence warranted rather than turn it into a political issue. That is why new cases in Europe are trending down to zero and the opposite is happening in parts of the US and Latin America.

It saddens me when logic and reason are set aside for emotion and bias. We see it every day and it costs us dearly. Sometimes it costs lives.


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