Accuracy above all
The start of the working week appeared to indicate how grim things would turn. Salvador Panelo opened his mouth and put his foot in, announcing to reporters that the Philippines was following South Korea’s lead:
“[M]embers of the Cabinet are considering what Korea carried out. They did a total lockdown. That is what we’ll present to the President.” That inaccuracy, along with pseudomedical advice of eating bananas and gargling salt water to “destroy or contain” the novel coronavirus, added, if not to the general frustration over the government’s seeming haphazard handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, then to the mass confusion of the fake and the genuine animating social media.
This man has rank. He’s not just some functionary in the big-budget Presidential Communications Operations Office; he speaks for President Duterte (although his boss’ longtime close-in aide Sen. Bong Go looks like he has the job down pat) and serves as chief legal counsel. It is therefore imperative that he not be reckless, or sound ignorant, in his pronouncements.
In fact, South Korea has not imposed a “total lockdown.” The world’s 12th largest economy is fighting the novel coronavirus with aggressive testing and, according to the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had conducted almost 250,000 tests as of March 13. Seo Eun-young, director of foreign press relations in Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said testing was the key to containing the virus—and the reason Korea’s mortality rate of 0.77 percent was way below the 3.4-percent global average.
There is now a sharp downward trend in the number of Koreans afflicted with COVID-19 (8,320 as of March 17), a trend that their government achieved without resorting to the kind of lockdown imposed by China or Italy.
As for consuming bananas to ward off the plague—which Panelo said he had picked up from the internet—and gargling with salt water, these practices, while not harmful to the body, are not proven to be of medical use against the novel coronavirus. The man who presumes to speak for Malacañang should not feel called upon to dispense homey tips, not in these or other times, even if under cover of a fancy, clearly expensive, face mask.
There is no overstating the importance of ensuring accuracy in providing the people information crucial to the safe conduct of their daily lives, particularly and urgently as the nation, with its less than sterling health system, is besieged by a deadly virus. As it happens, the necessary information is late in coming to the intended receivers, as demonstrated in the hundreds of taxi drivers apprehended on Edsa early on the first day of the community quarantine, with a number of the cabbies pleading ignorance of the government order. And something has to be done to quickly address the changing, even contradictory, statements of various government officials in charge of managing the quarantine now covering the whole of Luzon. For example: Will banks be closed or open for business? Is outbound travel off or on? Can Filipinos assess themselves for COVID-19 or is it risky to do so?
Yet getting correct information from relevant government officials for swift and orderly dissemination to the general public, while a challenging task in itself, has become even more problematic with the new directive that journalists secure accreditation from the PCOO to cover developments in the quarantine as well as other aspects critical to their work. Compliance with the directive is apparently necessary to be able to function in these uncertain times. But we submit that the PCOO’s requirement adds an unwelcome layer of busyness that does not contribute to the transparent and unimpeded flow of information in this democratic space.
With the Philippines gripped in a growing contagion, it is imperative that the conversation between the government and its constituents be marked by urgency, transparency and accuracy. Decisions and instructions should be well coordinated among the relevant agencies and simply formulated for swift dissemination to the public—a task impossible to achieve if the media are given official runarounds and blatant inaccuracies or, worse, hampered from effectively performing their function.
Globally, the fight against the pandemic requires China’s straightforward accounting of how it dealt and is dealing with the novel coronavirus starting from the initial manifestations in Wuhan City in December, so that the rest of the world can learn valuable lessons. The experience of the whistle-blower doctor Li Wenliang is part of China’s failures to disclose crucial information about the virus to the public.
Is China altering the narrative? Now it has revoked the press accreditation of reporters of the United States’ biggest newspapers. Another contagion seems to be brewing.
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