COVID-19 Op-ed

COVID 19 and The Crisis in Communication in the Philippines

Written by admin

Angelito P. Bautista
Jr.
General manager of Blue Chips Research and
Consultancy Co. He holds a Master’s degree in Communication Management from
the Asian Institute of Journalism and Communication, and a Bachelor’s degree
in Communication Research from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines.
His research interests include media and information literacy, and public
opinion.

Over the past few weeks, governments around the
world scrambled to find ways to control the spread of COVID-19 in various
ways. Strict enforcement of social distancing and quarantine were implemented
but it seems that confusion still arises among the public regarding this
health crisis.In the Philippines, the first case of COVID-19 was recorded on
30 January 2020. After this confirmation, local citizens, especially in the
National Capital Region, started buying facemasks and alcohol for their
protection. Though the quick action of the public to protect themselves was
commendable, it was apparent that there is a gap in the people’s knowledge
about the virus since there was a massive proliferation of fake news and
invalid information especially online.  An example is how to properly
use facemasks, which resulted in improper usage and hoarding. This happened
again after the confirmation of the first local transmission in the first
week of March, which contributed to more panic and anxiety.This is proof of
why communication is important in times of crisis. With the availability of
the internet and social media, and the ability of the public to create and
distribute information, the government must learn how to respond away,
clearly and responsibly.  Once a problem arises, people who knew more
about it must be proactive as much as possible— in this case, the
government.Critics believe that the days or weeks after the first case was
recorded in January could have been used to better inform the public about
the pandemic, making them more prepared, and ensuring that they understand
the current and potential severity of the crisis.However, it seems that some
government officials took the issue rather lightly after the first case was
recorded. “Everything is well in the country. There’s nothing really to
be extra-scared of that coronavirus thing,” said Philippine President
Rodrigo Duterte on 3 February 2020, during a press briefing.Another example
of a seeming crisis in communication in the country happened when the
Government announced the implementation of community quarantine in the NCR
from 15 March to 14 April. Classes, public offices, and mass gatherings were
suspended, while flexible work arrangements in the private sector were
encouraged. Domestic air, land and sea travel to and from NCR were also
suspended, whereas public transport remained operational.This left local
residents confused, unsure how this policy will be implemented and what this
means. For example, how will social distancing be enforced in crowded areas
and public transport like the Metro Rail Transit (MRT)? How will workers
living outside NCR go to work within the capital? In addition, the
announcement resulted in panic buying, since the people were unsure if they
can still be able to buy food and other essentials once the quarantine takes
effect.Many also scrambled to understand how the quarantine will be
implemented if people will still be allowed to go in and out of the
Metropolis? Was it equivalent to a lockdown? Who will man the checkpoints?
Many questions left unanswered or worse, answered differently by different
government officials.By the second day of the community quarantine, an
enhanced community quarantine  was
announced for the entire Luzon, which took effect the following day. Under
this set-up, all mass gatherings including religious ones were completely
prohibited, and all means of public transport were no longer allowed to limit
the movement of people.But then again, more questions were raised. How will
health workers go to work if public transport is suspended? How about the
delivery of basic necessities such as food and other essential goods? Or what
will happen to people who do not have regular jobs? Others even questioned
how military checkpoints will be executed, and what are the plans of the
government in terms of massive testing and disinfection?Thankfully, these
questions were answered by members of the COVID-19 Inter-Agency Task Force in
the subsequent media briefings.But panic, confusion, and anxieties could have
been lessened if communication strategies were properly put in place.
Announcement of policies coupled with proper explanation of terms,
situations, and processes could have averted further problems.
 Remember, the public has the right to information. And that information
must be complete and accurate.Responding to COVID-19 does not only require an
adequate medical response. There is also a need for effective communication
to ensure that the public fully understands the background and impact of the
pandemic, and the solutions required to address the situation (ex. Why social
distancing, why stay at home). Through this, we are sure that all policies in
place are properly followed and implemented.The Government must realize that
communication is more than expressing one’s message through simple words. The
delivery of the message is more important. Furthermore, effective
communication is a combination of what you say, how you say it, and the
actions that follow.  We hope the government is learning its lessons –
that the public has the right to information and that it cannot be realized
without effective communication.References:Proclamation
No. 922. (PDF). Official Gazette of the Republic of the Philippines. 8 March
2020.Aspinwall, N. (2020, 14 March). Coronavirus Lockdown Launches Manila
Into Pandemonium. Retrieved April 4, 2020, from https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/14/duterte-quarantine-philippines-coronavirus-lockdown-launches-manila-into-pandemonium/COVID-19
Situation Reports in the Philippines. (n.d.). Retrieved 4 April 2020, from
https://www.who.int/philippines/emergencies/covid-19-in-the-philippines/covid-19-sitreps-philippinesPanti,
L. T. (2020, March 9). Lawmaker wants weeklong NCR lockdown amid COVID-19
threat. Retrieved 4 April 2020, from https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/news/nation/728901/lawmaker-wants-weeklong-ncr-lockdown-to-prevent-spread-of-covid-19/story/

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