Communication matters | Inquirer Opinion
Business Matters

Communication matters

Some of the findings of the SWS 2020 opinion polls reported at yesterday’s AIM/SWS forum should delight government. First, survey results challenged the narrative, sometimes propagated by government officials themselves, projecting the Filipino masa as pasaway, or incorrigible scofflaws, habitually ignoring necessary precautions against the pandemic.

Filipinos understood the danger of viral infection, feared its consequences on livelihood and life, and did what they could to protect themselves. They were even willing to accept quarantine and contact-tracing protocols resisted in other countries as intrusions into their privacy or, worse, infringement on their liberties.

Second was the confidence—69 percent of respondents in the November 2020 survey—that the country had beaten back the worst the virus had to offer. This reflected the confidence shared by 80 percent in September that a vaccine would be available within 12 months. This information should raise the pressure on the bureaucracy to ensure it meets public expectations.


The question on availability might have been more usefully framed in terms of when the individual interviewees expected to take the vaccine. The response on “availability” would then reflect their expectation of personal access to the vaccine, not just a general assessment of governance capacity. We might see different responses from the A-B and the D-E income sectors.


This question would have related to the willingness to take the vaccine, reported in September 2020 at 66 percent. The 2017 controversy and court cases over Dengvaxia had badly eroded vaccine confidence. Vaccine receptiveness might improve if, as expected in November 2018, the Department of Justice finally cleared or convicted the parties charged with the deaths Dengvaxia had allegedly caused.

Third, the survey might have asked where respondents get their information about the pandemic. The findings would qualify our understanding of the survey findings and suggest how policymakers can improve their public communications strategies. In wartime, governments typically impose censorship. For a pandemic, providing quick, correct information to the public is crucial, and multiple channels of information should be an advantage—unless they create confusion by delivering diverging messages.

The weekly presidential briefing, with Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) officials in attendance, should serve as the most credible source of information and advice. Its mandate includes reviewing pandemic measures proposed by different government agencies to avoid overlapping or conflicting initiatives. It also partly serves to comply with the congressional requirement for a regular accounting by the executive on how it is using the broad powers and the massive financial resources entrusted to it because of the coronavirus crisis.

Interdepartmental policy disputes conducted in the media, such as that between the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration on overseas jobs of medical personnel, exposed the IATF’s deficiency as a platform for internal conflict resolution. Whether the briefings satisfy congressional oversight requirements is something the legislature should determine.

Rather than a platform to announce to Congress and the public the impact of decisions reached and implemented by the executive, the presidential briefing sometimes became a brainstorming venue, where a program like Balik-Probinsya, promoted by Sen. Bong Go, received presidential approval before it had undergone completed staff work vetting. The hasty implementation had to be terminated when the repatriation of internal migrants to their original provinces, as a way of decongesting informal settlements in the NCR, resulted in spreading COVID-19.

The briefings perhaps helped to project the President as “in-charge,” working hard through the night to serve the public. Thus, to emphasize the anti-corruption drive, recent sessions had a litany of middle-level officials sanctioned for incompetence, immorality, fraud, with penalties as severe as three months’ suspension—while comforting Health Secretary Francisco Duque III for supposedly having been unfairly dragged into the PhilHealth plunder cases. Discussions on pandemic issues raise questions, but the President advised the public not to be too picky in choosing vaccines; they are all the same, according to him.


The periodic IATF update on the progress of its collaboration with the private sector on pandemic measures does deserve commendation for an informative forum that even allows invited participants to seek clarification from the resource speakers. It is reassuring to see competent and committed people from the private sector and the government addressing together the truly complex problems of vaccine selection, acquisition, and distribution. These sessions deserve a bigger audience.


Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.


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TAGS: Communication, COVID-19, opinion, pandemic, survey, SWS

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