Numbed by numbers
■ Sanny Boy Afable
Solve: 2,609 + 1475.
The answer is the combined number of people killed by the police in Oplan Tokhang, and the number of drug-related killings outside police operations across the country in the first nine months of the war on drugs. Why should we care when this figure—4,804* is but a statistically negligible 0.00005 percent of our 104 million population?
I have been spending years of complex calculations only to be bombarded today by the simplest of maths: about 18 drug suspects were killed each day, the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas recorded 43 political killings in the countryside, and the president even made an election promise to kill “100,000 criminals.”
Suddenly, people have almost accustomed themselves to lives being reduced to mere statistics, subjects of lifeless calculations of collateral damage. The death count in the war on drugs has become a measure of “development” like an economic index.
My aspiration to be a statistician comes with my conviction that numbers do not lie, but I believe these statistics will get us nowhere near the truth when they only drive us numb. The irony—or the “fundamental deficiency” as a psychologist puts it—of our very humanity is that we can care for a few people, say, an image of a mother hugging his murdered son in the streets, but not for thousands of people killed whose families are left broken and crying for justice.
But is it really the numbers that are heartless?
Powers that be set the number race, and they set aside what these numbers truly represent. It is true that 392 is too high a number of political prisoners for the government to free from jail. However, it is also true that many of these prisoners were incarcerated for trumped-up charges, and they should not be treated as “political cards” by the president.
When the government said there are 1.3 million drug users, it meant to suggest that the arrest and death of these drug users are necessary to “cleanse” society. Never mind how poverty, and drug use and pushing are highly correlated.
The tragedy is not the statistics, but how we perceive the lives these numbers are meant to represent. While numbers should remain vital to the discussion of national progress, there are stories yet to be heard and cannot be told in graphs and statistics. A fifth or 21.6** percent of the population in 2015 live below the poverty line, and no matter how I try to be proficient in statistics, I cannot “estimate” their true conditions unless I immerse in their struggle.
Behind the “success” of the war on drugs, a five-year-old kid was shot dead, a class loses one good student, and a family will forever long for a breadwinner. I should care about the 4,804 killed not just because it is a staggering death count, but because I care about life.
Despite holding truth in themselves, numbers cannot speak up. But we can. ■
*Vera Files as of March 24, 2017
**Philippine Statistics Authority
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