AS I was listening to National Public Radio a couple of days ago, I heard its host Ari Michael Shapiro say: ‘Dr Anthony Fauci is everywhere in America during this coronavirus epidemic.’ Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United States, is a man who often contradicts president Donald Trump, standing next to him at briefings. As I was listening to Shapiro’s description of Fauci, the face of Meerjady Sabrina Flora, director of the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research, Bangladesh, several questions came to my mind about the their responsibilities in the time of the crisis at hand.
As spokespersons, they both are given the task to give out a credible response on behalf of their respective governments. Their response is crucial in times of crisis because, according to crisis communication scholar Matthew Seeger, an effective communication is increasingly considered a crucial resource in saving lives as it has several major functions — preparedness, warning, coordination and cooperation, mitigation, reassurance, order introduction, renovation and the derivation fo appropriate conclusions.
Without any doubt, Fauci has earned the confidence of people even who do not trust Trump. But the question is whether people of Bangladesh have confidence in Meerjady’s statements? Meerjady on March 25 provided ‘reverse information’, which she had earlier repeatedly denied, that there is crisis of coronavirus infection testing. She finally admitted that there had been a queue of people seeking tests. Meerjady time and again insisted that they had the capacity to test suspected coronavirus infection cases although people and public health experts questioned the reasons for testing only a small group of people. She claimed on Saturday that no new patients had been detected in the past 24 hours and the number of total confirmed cases remained at 48. Public comments on newspaper reports about Meerjady’s statements and government-sponsored Facebook postings exhibit people’s disappointment, doubts and mistrust. But a good spokesperson should ‘be transparent, provide candid, accurate information, including being open to what is known and what is unknown about the crisis.’
At the beginning of the press conference, it is expected that she would have ‘established an appropriate level of concern and empathy, which can help create rapport with the audience.’ It is important to show empathy because hundreds of thousands of people are forced to remain indoors who do not have any food at home. The spokesperson should appreciate these poor people’s incredible sacrifices on behalf of the nation. But in the past two days of the press briefing, we found neither empathy nor any acknowledgement in her statement for those who continue suffer. The basic rule for a spokesperson during a crisis is acknowledging the uncertainty.
I do not think Meerjady, also an academic and researcher, did not go through the Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication Manual, which describes the role of spokespersons and guidelines on how to work with the media and the World Health Organisation’s coronavirus disease plans ‘COVID-19 Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan: Operational Planning Guidelines to Support Country Preparedness and Response.’ Then the question is: what goes wrong with the IEDCR spokesperson? Does she not really have no knowledge of how to handle the media at this time of pandemic? Or is there something else that forces her to behave this way?
It is difficult to give an actual picture of the coronavirus situation in Bangladesh because of its limitations in testing. But as a spokesperson, she needs to tell people why she does not know the information. Instead of admitting to a shortage of equipment, the government on March 26 suspended two college teachers for their Facebook postings over the shortage of personal protective equipment for physicians. According to newspaper reports, the two teachers in their postings were critical of the inadequate supply of the protective gear for physicians and apparently the role of a section of civil service officials. The World Health Organisation’s coronavirus disease plans lays an emphasis on the identification, training and designation of spokespeople so that they can disseminate the message in responsive, empathic, transparent and consistent ways in local languages.
But unfortunately, we have seen that the government, instead of training its officials, appointed 15 officials to monitor if private television channels were running any propaganda or rumours about the novel coronavirus. The government in the face of a huge outcry, redefined the responsibility of the assigned official. Now the government is saying that the officials will monitor and assist the authorities and the media whether any rumour or misinformation is circulated on social media and other media outlets. Ministers and ruling party leaders have made inconsistent statements on the novel coronavirus and government preparedness which appeared to be a hoax. In this context, the spokesperson need to realise that her role is different from that of politicians who often want to tell everybody that we have everything under control which is ultimately detrimental to health and safety.
If a spokesperson during a crisis forgets crisis communication training to say ‘The situation is developing and we do not yet have all the facts…’, it is not surprising that Meerjady’s response to the current coronavirus situation has included silencing or otherwise covering up news of the outbreak. Considering the current situation of the freedom of expression, we understand Meerjady’s limitations in disseminating facts. Academics have showed that the ruling class by using instruments such as government advertising, production and broadcast of distorted news shows, pro-regime online media, bribing and the planting of stories in supposedly independent press and the hiring of internet ‘trolls’ to post pro-regime comments, ensure the dissemination of information that ‘the leader is competent’ in any situation. But this situation is totally different. COVID-19 is unknown to people. The government cannot control this virus by beating day labourers on roads to force them to remain indoors or publicly humiliating senior citizens for not wearing masks. According to WHO, communications need to be made to the public and the public need to be engaged in preparedness and response activities in a participatory, community-based way.
The role of a spokesperson is challenging and stressful in the time of a crisis. It is more stressful when you serve in a country with press freedom apparently somewhat restricted. But this is the time to desert regular political, organisational and institutional loyalties to saving lives. Credibility is the key for a spokesperson during a crisis. Even journalists often suspend their regular gate-keeping practices and adversarial positions and rely on spokespeople’s information during a crisis. Believing in spokespeople, the media and the government are likely to lose credibility.
Md Khadimul Islam is a PhD scholar in communication at Wayne State University.
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