by Diwa C. Guinigundo
Last week, the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) report on the Philippines’ death statistics for January 2019 through December 2020 must have surprised many. The PSA reported fewer deaths in 2020 relative to 2019 tally. Despite the 9,244 deaths due to COVID-19 in 2020, the total mortalities declined to 601,811 from the previous year’s 620,414, or by 3.1 percent.
What were the top killer diseases? There was no update for the years 2019 and 2020 but in the year before that, the PSA reported that heart diseases, cancer and cerebrovascular diseases alone accounted for more than a third of those who died in 2018.
Based on our estimate, COVID-19 might explain only about 1.5 percent of total mortalities. Therefore, what is the big deal about the coronavirus? What is the urgency of getting effective, safe and available vaccines?
Getting infected with COVID-19 is a world apart from getting the flu or the pneumonia. It is scary. We had the occasion to talk with people who almost lost their battle against the virus and were about to give up. They testified that it was being alone and being treated by medical workers garbed in overalls that literally eroded their fighting spirit. Their solitary confinement would be punctuated with their incessant struggle for air. Some were intubated alone in the COVID-19 ward with no visitor allowed until they gave up their ghost, or they were blessed with recovery. Prayer made a difference; some agnostic sought relief from prayer. Getting the tube is like being ushered into the threshold of the beyond.
It’s not quite a mark of distinction to be one of those who succumbed to COVID-19 in 2020. Or even this year.
We can only detest death.
Imagine the tragedy of those medical frontliners who spent a lifetime shaping their destinies as doctors and nurses, and whose lives were dedicated to serve and save humanity, only to be snapped by an unseen virus. A similar kind of death for non-medical men and women who also nurtured dreams is equally tragic especially to their families. It’s nothing but a big, big loss. It is difficult to take because the cause could have been avoided by a more thoughtful leadership.
In statistical terms, one does not relish the idea of being one of the 9,244 out of 108 million Filipinos, who died of viral infection. It’s like being hit by an OB in golf out of a big crowd. Or perhaps the only flunker in a class of 50.
Some 50 years ago, ABS-CBN sponsored a long-running amateur singing competition “Tawag ng Tanghalan” (TNT), hosted then by the late Lupito and Pachie. When a contestant went off tune, the chairman of the board of judges would ask the gong master to eliminate him outright by hitting the gong three times. TNT produced the likes of Diomedes Maturan and Nora Aunor. Lost by the gong meant he was the only one eliminated out of say, 10 contestants. By the judges’ decision, he joined the other nine contestants who lost fair and square.
Many of us are likewise biased when faced with this pandemic. While many actually survived the infection — 545,912 against total infected persons of 597,763 as of March 8, 2021 — no one for sure knows where he would end up in the general scheme of things of the virus.
This is the imperative of treating corona virus differently from other viruses and their subsequent variants. In previous column, we raised the possibility that if our health authorities were more loss averse, they could have made our initial strides against the Wuhan virus more timely and more decisive. While our COVID-19 related mortality record is relatively low against other jurisdictions, and against our own total mortality and population, people are naturally averse to negative rather than positive event. COVID-19 has caused the lockdown of economies, individual mobility and even social events. Those narratives of pathetic deaths of patients alone in the room, intubated and immediately cremated dominate our psyche.
No one wants any death in the family; more so, a lonely death by a virus.
Yet not everyone feels compelled to secure the vaccines for COVID-19. Commentaries from questionable sources peddle the idea that COVID-19 is contrived, concocted somewhere by conspirators and something that can be addressed by steam inhalation or the use of Ivermectin. Many were led to believe vaccines are dangerous. Too many side effects but with uncertain results. Some would openly endorse immediate lifting of quarantine restrictions in the middle of an upsurge.
Which brings us to another bias. One of the biases that preoccupies behavioral economists is survivorship bias. People are prone to systematically overestimate their ability to do things, or to analyze issues and challenges. To keep ourselves level-headed, someone suggested we must occasionally visit cemeteries where we could see the graveyards of once-successful businessmen, politicians and artists who ended up in the genesis of man.
It could be a sad but sobering trip. But it could keep our feet on the ground.