In early 2020, COVID-19 had initially arrived on our shores by a handful of tourists from Wuhan, but there was still very little local spread. There was, in fact, more spread in the small island state of Singapore. So my husband, Joseph, the Philippine Ambassador to Singapore at the time, and I would spend the end of each day checking the Singapore Ministry of Health (MOH) website for the latest statistics on COVID-19. .
Around March 2020, COVID-19 started breaking out in Manila with the Diamond Cruise strain. Unfortunately, there was no website similar to the Singapore Ministry of Health in the Philippines. I felt very uncomfortable not knowing what was going on except for anecdotes, Viber messages and rumors. I thought to myself: how could our leaders fight this battle if they didn’t have the necessary up-to-date information?
In my commercial position, I am responsible for the health and well-being of my Filinvest family and the financial health of our businesses. I assessed the situation and realized that this fight is different if public health is in danger. It is no longer against our competitors but against a new invisible enemy. I have spent many sleepless nights researching COVID-19. I felt I had to learn as much as possible about the enemy.
I decided that I had to get involved. I cold called the secretary of the Department of Science and Technology Fortunato de la Peña and told him that Filinvest and his foundations wanted to contribute to a data warehouse and create a data dashboard so that we could follow COVID-19. He immediately gave the go-ahead, along with Health Secretary Francisco Duque III. The only benefit of a pandemic is that the civil service becomes less bureaucratic, as everyone readily accepted aid, especially since the world was in a dilemma.
I asked a data science company, Thinking Machines, if they had a team ready, and they got to work. It took the team about a month to set up the first basic Department of Health (DOH) COVID-19 dashboard. Dr. Beverly Ho from DOH was very open to new ideas and suggestions and was the main resource person. I was told that making a data warehouse and dashboard was extremely demanding while simultaneously dealing with a decentralized and inadequate data infrastructure, especially with such a short lead time.
Setting up the data warehouse was only the first step. Data must arrive clean and fast. The data was coming in slowly, dirty and incomplete. We have dealt with different labs with their own systems and data entry fields. The biggest hurdle was agreeing on the data entry system. The T3 (Test, Trace, and Treat) team managed to increase the country’s daily testing capacity from 3,000 to 30,000 by May 2020, and it has been growing steadily. The integration of all the newly accredited laboratories added to the challenge. The available system used turned out to be inadequate and impractical. In the end, in collaboration with the Department of Information and Communications Technology, our company’s IT team led by Jun Andal implemented CDRS, a practical system capable of filtering dirty data and simplifying the process by downloading from the Excel files that most labs were using. The human factor cannot be ignored. There have been persistent calls for data coders to get their cooperation to use the new system, including using barangay data from COVID-19 cases instead of lab data. This was the turning point when data became cleaner and more timely. I say: “Perfection would have been the enemy of progress.” You live with what you have and, with agility, keep improving it along the way. We have since handed over the CDRS to the government.
Collecting COVID-19 case data for new case surges, barangay “hot spot” clusters and death trends was just the tip of the iceberg. In the management of the pandemic, data on the availability of test kits and their related supplies (swabs, reagents, etc.), hospital and quarantine center beds and their occupancy rates had to be replenished. A decentralized public health care system, without a central agency for disease control and prevention, was at the heart of the challenge. A disjointed public health data infrastructure involving public and private hospitals and local government units (LGUs) will require much more investment for sustainability.
In the process, it was a privilege for me to work with the T3 team led by Vince Dizon. I believe this fight against COVID-19 is the most successful public-private partnership effort of any government, born out of love for country. A big part of T3’s role was to coordinate all the other stakeholders, DOH, Congress, LGU, etc., to agree on what needed to be done, to make relevant data available as a basis for decision-making so that necessary resources and manpower could be provided and policies and processes could all be aligned.
I am truly saddened for those who have suffered loss and grief from this terrible disease. My great hope is that the lessons learned and the data infrastructure developed during this COVID-19 pandemic will be further improved so that we are ready to fight the next pandemic, centered on people and disease, with the infrastructure. of data required as an essential element. tool and not as a handicap.
L. Josephine Gotianun Yap is Chairman of Filinvest Group.
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