By Jose Sealtiel Cruz
Department of Health (DOH) Secretary Francisco Duque III has once again drew the ire of netizens after saying that the country has flattened the curve in terms of new COVID-19 cases “since April.” He has later clarified his statement, citing how the country’s case doubling time has increased to 8 to 12 days from the 2.5 days “during the initial phase of the pandemic” and the mortality doubling time has lengthened.
As of writing (17 July), the DOH has recorded 63,001 COVID-19 cases with 1,660 total deaths and 21,748 total recoveries (see Earth Shaker’s graphic card).
There are gaping holes in Duque’s statements, besides his bold pronouncement that the country managed to “flatten the curve.”
Before anything, you must understand that doubling time is, essentially, the time it takes for a growing population to double its initial size. Say that the DOH records a constant 2,000 new cases per day and they start recording the doubling time at 10,000 cases. Arithmetic tells us that it will take five days for the initial 10,000 cases to double – at 20,000. If they record the doubling time from 20,000 cases, it will take ten days for the 20,000 cases to double – at 40,000.
Notice how drastically the doubling time has changed, from five days to ten, despite the cases growing at a constant 2,000 per day. Without this knowledge, it can seem as if there is progress in how the government handles the pandemic.
The way the government reports numbers is an implicit way to control the narrative. Listening to just numbers does not help the citizens if not put in a proper context.
It is easy to remember Harry Roque fist-pumping in the surreal June 30 noontime briefer after “[the Philippines has] beaten the UP prediction” of 40,000 cases by the end of June by around 2,500 cases. However, it can be remembered that DOH has reclassified the figures in their May 30 press release into “fresh” cases, or positive test results that were validated within three days; and “late” cases, or test results that were validated after four days or more.
Taking this into consideration, a Twitter user counted the late cases from July 1 to 4 – when backtracking by four days (or more) between a positive test result and validation reliably fell on June. The late cases increased the initial June 30 count to at least 40,094, a lisp above the ‘prediction to beat.’
The new definitions may be used by the DOH to “update[s] data presentation,” but the previous scenario shows how this definition was used by the Palace spokesperson to create a narrative.
Molding a narrative becomes easier in a country under the longest lockdown due to COVID-19 with citizens experiencing what experts call a “quarantine fatigue,” where people may disregard common health protocols due to the mind being numbed by threats. Additionally, the health secretary may have quarantine fatigue.
It is plausible, but a stretch, that Filipinos have grown increasingly apathetic as indicated by this 2019 survey among the Gen Z – however, Filipinos can be apathetic due to the problems magnified by the pandemic. A Social Weather Station (SWS) survey that ran from May 4 to 10 showed that Filipinos are divided in thinking that the worst is yet to come for this pandemic; while another showed how at least 4 out of 5 Filipinos reported that their quality of life has worsened.
The SWS has resorted to mobile and telephone interviews involving 4,010 respondents.
This newfound vulnerability can be – and is – exploited by the government. True enough, they have branded Filipinos as “pasaway” after seeing an increase in cases while easing quarantine restrictions; but Google’s mobility data shows otherwise, with generally decreased movement in public spaces and an increase in residential areas.
Besides the people, it has been the government’s hobby to compare the country’s progress to that of neighboring countries. However, providing perspective also shows how much we lag compared to our Southeast Asian neighbors.
The Philippines has the largest number of active COVID-19 cases in SEA, followed by Indonesia and Singapore. Despite Indonesia having about 20,000 more total cases than the Philippines, they have less cases (about 3) per 10,000 population than the Philippines (at least 5) .
While Singapore may have more cases per 10,000 population (at least 80) , it must be noted that Singapore’s relatively small population of 5.85 million is at least 22 times denser than the Philippines’  and has done significantly more tests (172,506) per one million people than the Philippines (9,297).
All the figures I brought up can be refuted and argued upon with more figures, but doing so obscures the message I am trying to put out: the government can – and is – spitting out data to create a narrative in their favor, no matter how much context they choose to give out or leave in the dark.
The numbers should reflect how much effort the government made to prevent the spread of a novel disease. Having a population that, according to data, mostly complied to their whims; the government has done their part poorly – perhaps they have poured more effort manipulating numbers than caring for their constituents.
 Population estimates taken from worldometers.info and total number of cases taken from July 17 data.
 Population density taken from worldometers.info.