Why pick on OCTA?
The House committee on good government and public accountability acts like a modern-day Inquisition in pillorying OCTA Research on suspicion of tending to create public panic, conflict of interest, occult funding, lack of qualification, and loquaciousness.
Committee chair and Diwa party list Rep. Michael Aglipay reflects the confusion of the committee when he says, “we believe in your scientific methods, but your commentary is way too long. Just release a press statement, like the Department of Health (DOH). You are overexposed.” Buhay party list Rep. Lito Atienza, meanwhile, insists that OCTA should be prevented from making any more commentaries about the COVID-19 situation.
In truth, OCTA’s “overexposure” is the result of media, on behalf of the public, seeking information that the government does not provide. The media turn to OCTA because the DOH analysis is insipid and insufficiently nuanced for the ordinary citizen. Official sources are too circumspect, with spokespersons saying hardly anything substantial to avoid making mistakes. OCTA fills this elaboration gap. Rep. Aglipay’s admonition for OCTA to be as reticent as DOH, to “let the data speak for itself,” is way off the mark.
The committee members rode on the expertise and reputation of Marikina Rep. Stella Quimbo, a former UP professor like some OCTA fellows. Rep. Quimbo presented a table showing purported errors of as much as 50 percent in OCTA projections of daily COVID-19 infections. However, OCTA’s “errors” were underprojections rather than overprojections, unlikely to have caused panic. What is important is that in projecting overall trends, OCTA issued timely alerts about surges that did happen.
Rep. Quimbo worries about the Rasputin effect—that this mysterious upstart OCTA might be exerting undue influence on government decision-making. Maybe she has a point; while public trust seems to be high, the people lack confidence in President Duterte’s ability to seek and listen to sound advice on the pandemic. In any case, alternative sources of credible information engenders better decision-making.
Why should we take legislators to task on this matter? Well, they might be imagining they are protecting the public from polluted information and analyses, but in actuality, they might be doing more damage to the public by preventing the dissemination of critical information needed in a crisis. Worse, they may be creating a chilling effect on freedom of expression.
OCTA provides a critical source of alternative interpretation of the available COVID-19 data. Unfortunately, OCTA depends on imperfect DOH data culled over the previous two weeks due to underreporting. This is, however, the best data available. An alternative source of data for monitoring COVID-19 cross-sectional and time-series trends can be generated, like a periodic nationwide online survey of COVID-19 conditions, but this has yet to happen.
The only solution now is for DOH to improve its testing and contact tracing performance, so that the subsequent analysis by DOH, ABS-CBN, Ateneo, UP, and yes, OCTA, will not inherit the infirmities of the data as collected. These research outfits, using different analytical models and procedures, may differ in their projections and conclusions, but this seemingly discomfiting situation is normal science and enables the triangulation that provides a check on DOH projections, which might be pointing the nation in the wrong direction.
In periods of crisis and uncertainty, when data are scarce and the future is uncertain, more analysis and information-sharing are critical for people’s peace of mind.
The committees of the House of Representatives and the Senate should have their own independent research capabilities and sources of information within the scope of their committees. They should enhance their respective Congressional Policy and Budget Research Department and the Senate Economic Planning Office so these offices can perform selected strategic policy research programs and projects. The COVID-19 pandemic is as good a subject for such a research effort. Then, we will not be in this embarrassing situation of inducing private and nongovernmental institutions to fill in the critical policy research and analysis gaps, only to slap them down when they do so.
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