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A tale of two (COVID-19) countries

This is an objective comparison of how two countries in Asia Pacific have addressed the coronavirus pandemic. The idea is not to determine which country has the better strategy, but rather for us to know how we can improve and formulate the most effective anti-COVID-19 protocols.

Dr. Ashley Bloomfield, director-general of health of New Zealand, reported that their small nation has been able to control COVID-19, describing its success as “crushing the curve.” He said the country has gone more than five weeks without any new infections. As of publication, New Zealand had registered only 1,570 confirmed cases, of which 1,523 had recovered and with only 22 deaths since the first case on Feb. 28.

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Bloomfield attributed their success to speedy testing, contact tracing and isolation, strict physical distancing, clinical management of those infected, rigorous adherence to public health guidance, and clear and regular public communication. “It’s all about the SPEED. The faster you can find the cases, isolate the cases, and track their close contacts, the more successful you’re going to be,” he said, quoting from a WHO-China joint mission report in February.

Three days after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on Jan. 30, New Zealand began introducing disease prevention measures. From late February through March, the country progressively tightened restriction on New Zealanders.

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Dr. Takeshi Kasai, WHO regional director for the Western Pacific, provided technical guidance, outbreak updates, and risk assessments. “[New Zealanders] didn’t take anything for granted. They worked concertedly to limit and stop COVID-19,” said Kasai. In a report on its website, the WHO noted that the New Zealand government “called on the entire population to unite as a ‘team of 5 million’ to protect their families, friends and neighbors.’”

The Ministry of Health and the WHO worked together to keep case numbers low and stamp out the virus at home. But they did not rest on that success. New Zealand continues to be vigilant. The government has warned that the virus is still circulating around the world and that New Zealand must work hard to keep it from returning. They are prepared to reintroduce control measures if it does.

The Philippines, on the other hand, responded with marked sluggishness during the early phase of COVID-19. In a March 11 speech in Malacañang, President Duterte told the audience: “I’ve been told masyado naman takot itong corona na ito — you folks are too scared of this coronavirus. Naniwala pala kayo. Sus. Fools, don’t believe it.” It was all about SLOWNESS to restrict the travel of people coming from China, likely because of presidential worry about alienating Beijing, and concerns about adversely affecting the inflow of hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens working in the online casino industry.

And then, our public communication strategy on how to control the spread of COVID-19 has been characterized more by jovial humor—never clear, never appealing. Shockingly, the President advised citizens to disinfect their face masks and hands with gasoline or diesel. As Dr. Tony Leachon, who was advising the administration on health reform measures before he was let go, warned in a CNN Philippines interview: “The Palace communication plan has to change. [Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque] is not in touch with reality. People are dying and losing hope.”

Effective communication and engagement with communities is essential if the government is to get a firm grasp of the situation, and to get people to practice measures to protect their health and those of the larger community. But, instead of the Inter-Agency Task Force, it is Roque who supplies us with unhelpful messages like “We beat the UP prediction! We beat it! Congratulations, Philippines!”

Even at this time, with the country’s case numbers already the highest in Southeast Asia, Roque still insists that the country is winning the COVID-19 battle. His glib approach to public communication during a pandemic is incorrect and ultimately harmful. He should be replaced by a dedicated communicator who can help unite us in working toward beating the virus. The government needs to take the lead in being more serious, more focused, and more disciplined in fighting the spread of COVID-19.

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Charlie A. Agatep is chair and CEO of Grupo Agatep, an integrated and independent marketing communications agency.

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TAGS: Charlie A. Agatep, Commentary, coronavirus pandemic, coronavirus philippines, COVID-19, New Zealand COVID-19 response, PH COVID-19 response, Rodrigo Duterte
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