Silence and darkness in the war against COVID-19

Take some time to read the following excerpt from an opinion piece in a recent issue of the Daily Mirror, a national daily tabloid in the United Kingdom:

“Without journalism, coronavirus would kill more people. Take a moment to think about what the world would be without us.”

For a government to order its constituents to stay at home, it needed the media to communicate to the nation the seriousness of the message.

While it does matter that the thousands of workers in the national and local media sometimes get things wrong factually, technically and ethically, according to the Mirror, it was journalism that broke the silence at Wuhan, repeated the misinformation trotted out by governments and showed the impacts of the lies on their own people.

The Tribune is prompted to quote Britain’s top tabloid in the light of recent developments in the island’s battle to keep COVID-19 from slipping into the population.

The other Tuesday, an informed source said that a cargo truck driver managed to smuggle in his entire family from virus hotspot Quezon City, a report that later had to be corrected to reflect the fact that only his wife was hidden in the truck’s sleeping cabin during the trip.

Before 24 hours was over, officers from the Virac police station came to the publisher’s house and politely asked him the name of his source. The policemen claimed the source would be investigated by the chief of police in connection with an issue raised by the Philippine Coast Guard. Naturally, the publisher refused to disclose the source’s name.

At the time, the Facebook post had caused controversy, as the authorities were apparently caught unaware by the report, with none of the agencies securing the port informed by health officials who had been asked by barangay officials to act on the recent arrival.

It took several days before the police and the Coast Guard issued their reports on the result of their separate investigations on the matter. And not one statement was issued by the Provincial Task Force on Emerging and Re-Emerging Infectious Diseases (PTF-EREID) or its information and communications unit.

Despite an executive order that enumerated the duties and responsibilities of the different agencies in the task force, there is an apparent dissonance in the way the battle against coronavirus is being waged in the island, if insiders are to be believed.

No one seems to have been given the authority to manage COVID-19-related incidents and updating the general population on what the task force has been doing and the key statistics on PUMs and PUIs on a daily basis.

Sure, the regional Inter-Agency Task Force has warned local chief executives against issuing statements on the matter without clearance from health officials but it does not prevent both of them from jointly issuing reports to inform and educate the public that is hungry for information.

As a result, rumors and unconfirmed reports have proliferated on social media, posted instantly by every Facebook user who fancy themselves as serious journalists, filling the gap left by the absent government communications unit.

As Professor Ramon Felipe Sarmiento correctly observes in a post, in answer to his own question on how the public would get reliable COVID-19 updates, there should be one entity who should issue regular updates on the coronavirus, including data on suspect cases, test results, etcetera.

“Habo tang puro daa-daa.”

With the Holy Week break now over, government officials who were mercifully granted several days’ rest from their vital duties should consider setting up and operationalizing a unit to produce on a daily basis updates on COVID-19 incidents and statistics.

The report may consist of only the basic data, as long as it effectively communicates to the public what it deserves to know. Journalists in our midst can find out the details and report them on their own.

Like the media, the public hates being kept in the dark, a fact that the task force and its member agencies should take time to address.

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