SINCE the start of its outbreak in the country, the bulk of the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases has largely been concentrated in Metro Manila and the greater parts of the Luzon. Of the 7,958 total confirmed cases as of April 28, 2020, 4 p.m. (PST), 7,108 were recorded in these parts, while only 183 occurred in the islands of Mindanao. Of these, 129 (70 percent) are recorded in the Davao Region.
The low numbers in other parts of Mindanao seem to placate a lot of people. Indeed, many Mindanawons are quick to rejoice in the news that several of its provinces are “Covid-free.” In fact, a map produced by the University of the Philippines Resilience Institute (UPRI) even shows that the probability of an outbreak occurring in some parts of Mindanao is low.
But is it prudent to place all our trust in the data?
Empirical models fit curves to the observed data, which may be pragmatic in areas like Metro Manila and the greater part of Luzon where mass testing has occurred. But the absence of mass testing in most of Mindanao, excluding Davao Region, leaves LGUs coming up with decisions based on poor, unreliable data. Most LGUs may see a be looking at an imaginary curve “flattening”, and use this as justification for lifting or easing travel restrictions.
It is dangerous to believe that Northern Mindanao is “Covid-free.” In this analysis, I draw from census data, official poverty statistics, and the latest available data from the Department of Health’s Field Health Services Information System (DOH-FHSIS) to illustrate the demographic and environmental conditions which make its provinces and highly urbanized cities especially vulnerable to an outbreak of Covid-19.
Northern Mindanao and the Older Population
Several emerging studies on Covid-19 highlight the presence of chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, heart conditions, and respiratory diseases as risk factors for severe infection from Covid-19. According to the baseline findings of the 2018 Longitudinal Study of Aging and Health in the Philippines, a nationally representative survey of older Filipinos conducted by the Demographic Research and Development Foundation and funded by the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia, these are the most prevalent diagnosed illnesses among older persons. The susceptibility of older persons to one or more of these co-morbidities elucidates the higher mortality risk at the older ages.
Experts from the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science in the University of Oxford and Nuffield College are attributing the high Covid-19 fatality rates in to population age structure. On a global scale, the risk of dying appears to be more concentrated in the older population (adults aged 60 years and over). In fact, the hardest-hit countries from Covid-19 are also those with the oldest populations worldwide.
As with the rest of the country, Northern Mindanao has a young population, with half of the population younger than 22 years old. Among its provinces and highly urbanized cities, Lanao del Norte has the lowest median age at 20 years old, while CDO has the highest at 25 years old. Apart from being the “youngest”, Lanao del Norte also has the lowest percent share of older persons to the total household population; adults aged 60 years and over accounted for only 5% in 2015. Conversely, Camiguin Island—the smallest province in terms of land area and population—has the highest percent share of older persons. They comprise 11 percent of the province’s total household population in 2015, with more older women than men.
However, having a young population does not necessarily make us less susceptible to an outbreak. Generally, the younger population are more mobile and are exposed to more people daily. They may unknowingly carry the virus into their homes and risk infecting other family members. Moreover, physical distancing in the household may be a bigger challenge to societies with close family ties such as the Philippines, where a great majority of older Filipinos co-reside with their children and other family members at the younger ages.
Maria Karlene Shawn I. Cabaraban is currently completing her Master of Arts in Demography at the Population Institute, University of the Philippines Diliman. She obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Sociology, magna cum laude, from Xavier University – Ateneo de Cagayan in 2017. Apart from writing her thesis on older Filipinos, she works as a Research Assistant for the 2018 Longitudinal Study of Aging and Health in the Philippines, a project implemented by the Demographic Research and Development Foundation and funded by the Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia.