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Media flag Duque's "flattening the curve" claim | CMFR

Media flag Duque’s “flattening the curve” claim

Screengrab from doh.gov.ph.

WITH SO much of COVID-19 policies dependent on the DOH’s claims, media should check out what the agency and its officials in charge are saying.

As cases continue to rise in the NCR and Central Visayas, the health chief said, “We have successfully flattened the curve since April.”

In a pre-State of the Nation Address forum on July 15, DOH Secretary Francisco Duque III cited the slowdown of COVID-19 infections’ doubling timeand the decreasing mortality rate as the basis for his assessment. A backlash from experts quickly smashed the statement. Duque “clarified” his earlier pronouncement in a series of tweets hours later–this time claiming that the curve was only “bent.”

In an interview with ABS-CBN’s Teleradyo, however, Duque admitted his mistake and added that the country saw a spike in cases last June due to the easing of quarantine protocols.

With reports quick to point out the resurgence of cases, most news organizations reported the claim and criticisms against it. But a few went beyond reporting and flagged the mistake by providing their own analysis, citing experts.

Media recalled another claim by the health chief which was also rebuked and corrected. Last May, he said the Philippines was already in the pandemic’s “second wave,” a view that was not shared by Palace officials and health experts. He later corrected himself, saying the country was on the “first major wave of sustained community transmission.”

At this point, the discourse on media should no longer be afflicted with this kind of ignorance. By now, government and experts should have clarified amongst themselves the terms of the pandemic, the interpretation of what is happening as cases increase or decrease, what is meant by the technical language related to the treatment and transmission of the disease.

But even at this stage, the media pick up so much that is said that does not make sense, with some reporters failing to include the clarification and correction in the same story. On matters of public health and disease, the science matters and media must learn that they should not depend only on government officials for reliable interpretation.

CMFR monitored reports from the three major Manila broadsheets (Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star); four primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, CNN Philippines’ News Night, GMA-7’s 24 Oras and TV5’s One Balita); as well as selected news websites from July 15 to July 16, 2020.

“Flattening the curve”

CMFR notes the reports which immediately corrected the Health secretary.

Philstar.com noted that “Duque’s definition of flattening the curve” does not reflect its use in other countries where “flattening means a consistent decrease in daily cases.”

News.ABS-CBN.com debunked Duque’s claim by presenting analysis from the ABS-CBN Data Analytics team showing that the Philippines has yet to show a sustained downward trend in the number of new COVID-19 cases reported daily by DOH itself.

CNN Philippines cited ​health expert and former IATF consultant Dr. Tony Leachon who also disagreed with Duque’s view. “I don’t think we have flattened the curve based on our increase in cases, number of deaths, and full critical care capacity of NCR and Cebu hospitals. Perhaps DOH should review their own data to guide IATF, the whole government and the public of the situation,” Leachon said.

“Prepared health system”

Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire attempted to justify Duque’s claim. “When we say that we have flattened the curve, we were able to prepare our health system just in case there will be a surge or increase in the number of cases in the country,” she said in an interview with ANC.

Media should not have picked up this statement without holding it up for correction. Flattening the curve has a specific meaning and the DOH is simply wrong to use it differently. The official should have simply apologized for the mistake of her boss.

This time, however, media were quick to point out that COVID-19 wards in major hospitals are already nearing full capacity. Thus, even Vergeire misled with her lame effort at damage control and further exposed how unreliable the DOH has become.

Citing DOH data, Rappler reported that 76% of beds allotted for COVID-19 patients in the National Capital Region are occupied, placing it in the “danger zone” of care capacity. At least four Metro Manila hospitals have announced that they’ve reached full capacity of allocated COVID-19 beds in their intensive care units as of July 14.

Rappler also noted that based on the health department’s weekly situational report, as of July 13 the country still has a backlog of 13,457 tests, a lapse that has taken away the point of testing for both treatment or  mapping of the disease.

It is not only that DOH speaks out of turn. It seems that the agency has failed miserably to replicate the methods that have helped other countries and communities address the pandemic. The lesson for media is obvious. Do not be part of the problem by failing to check the spread of misinformation and further confusion. And every effort should be made to make the agency more accountable, given its critical role.   Journalists cannot simply record and repeat what they are told at briefings. Their task is to check the veracity of official claims and what government officials say. Otherwise, they are part of the problem and the failure.