COVID-reporting: Fact or fake news

Published February 7, 2021, 12:00 AM

by Philip Cu Unjieng


Philip Cu Unjieng

SM Prime Holdings and the National Resilience Council were the major supporters of an Epidemiology for Communicators webinar conducted late last week. Led by resource speaker Dr. John Q. Wong, the EpiMetrics epidemiologist, the idea was to have Dr. Wong interact with Filipino journalists, information officers, content creators, and media practitioners on how to effectively and reliably tell the story of the COVID-19 pandemic here in the Philippines.

One might think this comes late in the game, with the pandemic having been around already for a year; but if you think about the situation we’re still in, with confusion and uncertainty still reigning supreme, one can appreciate how timely this webinar actually is. Mind you, epidemiology looks at the forest, and not the trees; its goal is not to save one person, but a whole population. It’s about taking hard medical and scientific facts, creating verifiable public information, and engendering public trust; while combatting fake news.

DR. JOHN Q. WONG, epidemiologist, resource speaker for the webinar Epidemiology for Communicators

You may say this is all obvious and self-evident; but a cursory glance at social media and news portals today will show you just how much fake news, disinformation, contrary views, and outright lies exist in digital space. So where and how you get your news, who and what source provides the “facts” and information that form your opinion, advice, and life choices – are all impacted by the veracity of what’s really out there.

And don’t scoff, as just eight months ago, there were several people in the USA drinking or gargling bleach, or using soapy water and disinfectants – all in the belief that these actions would effectively keep them safe from contracting the COVID virus. And who were they listening to, dispensing this “medical” advice? It was then President Trump. Sure, he subsequently told reporters it was all a joke, but the damage had been done as so many of the Trump believers took his words as gospel truth. A sad lesson that shows just how crucial the right reporting can be.

So what are the pressing COVID-issues of the day? There’s the UK variant of the virus, showing how it’s mutating, evolving while we speak. There’s the vaccination program of each nation; questions arising about choice of vaccine, when available, in what numbers, who will be first in line, and what percentage of the populace are even willing to be administered the vaccine.

The variant first. It is worrying to note that the same vaccine enjoying an 89% success ratio in the UK is only tracking 49% in South Africa. It would seem the Emergency Use approvals is us grasping for what hope it promises; but evidently, the mutating of the virus means the global medical community still has to work together to find new solutions, measure the most effective vaccines. The COVID crisis is far from over. The virus doesn’t care that we’re all fatigued, chomping at the bit for herd immunity, and some vestige of normalcy. It’s got it’s own “mind” and survival tactics.

How to communicate the vaccination program? Dr. Wong stressed that a vaccination program does not equate to immunization. Immunization is dependent on how quickly, and in what numbers vaccinations are administered. He advised that we choose the one with high efficacy, not lower than 67%. When planning one’s vaccination program, the population are divided into 5 groups – the Susceptible, the Exposed, the Infectious, the Recovered, and the Died – the SEIR model. After the health workers, the elderly and those suffering from co-morbidities should be prioritized. And this is not as straightforward as it sounds. Elderly Filipinos have been found to be 15% less likely to be infected, but when infected, 5 to 10 times more likely to develop severe complications and die.

If the program will take into consideration which LGUs first, then those with the biggest and fastest outbreak should be first in line. But note that biggest and fastest are two different rankings. As of January 31st, 2021, the Top 5 with most cases were the Mountain Province, Kalinga, Baguio, Benguet, and Cebu. But when it comes to growth rate, Apayao (CAR), and Tawi-Tawi (ARMM) ranked first and second. As you can glean, it’s not as cut and dry as we would make it. Policy makers have their work in store for them when the vaccines arrive. With private companies purchasing the vaccines, those companies can set their own administering hierarchy; but the government will be scrutinized and questioned as they roll out their program. With the government, it’s not only “Who first,” but “where first” as well.

I made mention above of how many people are actually willing to be vaccinated. Is vaccine confidence really a trust deficit problem, or is it an information deficit issue? Who is sending the message that the vaccinations work? In other nations, we’ve seen presidents and heads of State make a show of being first in line. Influencers? In Indonesia, when influencers were utilized and vaccinated, there was a public outcry, as these influencers were neither front-liners nor the elderly and high-risk. Hoping our government learns a lesson from that Indonesian brouhaha.

Remember the dengvaxia controversy from six years ago? It’s no wonder that a segment of our population would be suspicious of the COVID vaccines, and how effective they are, given that they were all developed at “warp speed.” Plus, with the COVID vaccines, the moment there’s a case of someone, anywhere in the world, experiencing a bad reaction, it’s immediately in the social media feeds. Here again, the government will have to lead the public by the hand, and take them down the road of acceptance. And believe me, it won’t be an easy road to traverse.

A salute to SM Prime and the National Resilience Council, and to EpiMetrics and the Probe Media Foundation, Inc., for staging this webinar. Timely and important.


  1. JOHN Q. WONG, epidemiologist, resource speaker for the webinar Epidemiology for Communicators