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Counting the Country: Census in Epidemic

This morning, the first of September, 2020, two young people – a man and a woman – came over to our home and, over the fence, began the 2020 Census of Population and Housing. This national survey was meant to be conducted in May but, like all activities affected by the pandemic, was moved to this month.

It must have been optimism on the part of the government planners to assume that by this month, the world will be back to normal. No one has ever predicted that this virus and its impact will be beyond any technocrat’s grasp. It is not that the country’s leaders would not be able to do anything with the virus; it is such that the leadership never provided a system with which the country could ably respond to the health crisis the way other countries did.

Thus, on the last few days of August, we saw on TV Sarah Geronimo dancing to and singing a lively beat, announcing that the government was indeed set to conduct the 2020 Census of Population and Housing. In our country, we all do things with music: convicts in the penitentiaries dance; government spokespersons gyrate to any beat; and, the nation, with deaths and diseases around, continue to hum songs about love and breakup. We are a happy people in that way. We are also pathetic.

Back to the survey: a niece was requested to respond to the questioning. I was inside listening to how the survey was being administered. Every now and then, my niece would interject and tell the enumerator that the health condition of the entire country does not seem to warrant the conduct of this kind of face-a-face activity. I was, perhaps to the irritation of the male and female enumerators, echoing my niece’s observation and adding my own. I overheard the male enumerator asking the name of the people in the household. Whereupon, I rushed out and told them, a survey need not ask the names or specific identities of the members of the household. The young girl behind the male enumerator had that incredulous look on her face wondering who this not-so-young man in his kamiseta pompously telling them off about research procedures.

There was no time for me to tell them that I have been teaching and doing research for more than twenty years. That would be tacky. I just went into technicalese: the particular name – first name, middle name and family name – are never asked in surveys. The anonymity gives the respondents a more open and therefore less guarded position in the answering of the questions. The young woman still had that look on her face. I continued: it is not a variable. You cannot manipulate a family name statistically. What would you say – that households with members whose family names begin in letter “V” tend to be arrogant about surveys? Nah. Is this government not thinking? Well, that question need not be asked. I looked at the two enumerators – the girl had retreated and seemed to be calling some office to ask if I was making sense. She did not go back to where my niece was. I changed my voice: you should not be surveying in this pandemic. Either you will catch the virus or you bring it with you.

I was talking to myself as I went back inside the house: are you the carrier or the victim? I looked back at the young man – he had a mask on but no face shield. The ten o’clock shone harder on him.

The interview was soon over. I heard my niece asking them to wait up. She went to the kitchen and took some Yakult (good for nutrients, she was saying) and crackers.

Then they were gone. Off to virusland!

What are we in a hurry for to finish this survey? Sarah sashaying silly pointed to her left about data being used for policy-making and intervention, so that the government could help the people.

We, of course, did not believe her. This government checking data? Let’s go Bikolano then: Ining gobyerno daing data. Loosely translated: this government does not use data.

Over lunch, we continued talking not so much about the survey but all the other enumerators sweltering in the heat of September.

Were they tested? For intelligence and virus?

I continued searching for information in the Internet. There are many news about this census. The last one was held in 2015, yielding 100.8 million Filipinos. And there are details about the process. One piece of news mentioned how household members may refuse to do a face-to-face interview and instead opt for an online or phone transaction. These options were never given to us.

But no one can refuse to participate in the census. If one is stubborn enough, then that person should be ready to give a penalty of 100, 000 pesos. Who has that money now?

There is another information coming from National Statistician Claire Dennis Mapa stressing how the 113,364 data enumerators are expected to wear face masks and face shields, this over and above maintaining physical distancing and remaining at the gate. For houses with gates, I suppose.

What happens in dense areas?

In the same report, there is an answer to our anxiety. When the budget for census was prepared, there was no Covid-19 yet, no lockdown. The Philippine Statistics Office could not afford to put all its field personnel to Covid-19 testing.

What happens if one enumerator tests positive?

The last time we saw the two enumerators they were going into the denser part of the village, where people are called informal settlers.

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