Public must hear what they want to hear, not need to hear

Published: 00:00, Apr 09,2020


THE decision of the Directorate General of Health Services —  made on April 7 at the online briefing that it has regularly held since March 23, when it stopped holding press briefings in the presence of journalists to minimise the risk of the spread of the novel coronavirus infection — that it would no longer answer any questions of journalists appears to have rendered the briefings, to be regularly held online at 2:30pm every day, to the daily dishing out of information the way news bulletins do on radio and television channels. The directorate general at the briefing on April 7 did not give out the number of tests run on suspected cases of coronavirus infection and it did not so do the next day that it had so far done. The briefing organisers, however, gave the figures of the infection, which was 164 and increased to 218 the next day, and the number of death, which was 17 and increased to 20 the next day. With 33 cases having already been announced closed on April 6 and with no fresh discharge, the organisers did not need to say anything about this although they gave out information on some other issues, including the locations of infections and the age range of the infected.

All this suggests that the government is intent on telling journalists what the government thinks the public need to hear rather than telling what they want to hear. This is where issues may go awry. While the public already had resentment or reservations about the slow pace and a small number of tests run on suspected coronavirus infection cases, lending credence to a purported inability of government agencies, such a decision of the health services directorate general might give rise to further speculations, which may be good neither for the government nor for the public. And this may stop journalists from carrying out their duty of disseminating information and making people aware of what the government does, which is an elementary canon of journalism. This may breed intransparency in the process and limit the scope for the public to hold to account government agencies by way of which the government is supposed to improve on its performances. In public health, communication is said to be everything; policy is the target to which government accountability is the key. The health services directorate general decision is also likely to harm the scope for the right message at the right time from the right person that can save lives in emergencies such as the one at hand that involves COVID-19.

Clear information that is reliable presented in a clear way with the required empathy can go a long way to resolving issues of speculations and narrowing the scope for misinformation, which is what is now needed most in the fight against the threat of new coronavirus infection. In view of all this, the government must, therefore, review its decision of not answering any questions of journalists at the regular press briefing on the new coronavirus situation so that the public could hear what they want to hear, base their preparedness on reliable, clear information and rest, at least somewhat, assured.

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