Government is on the right track in providing regular updates to the public on the COVID-19 pandemic. What it needs to avoid, however, is even the slightest perception that vital information is being hidden from the public.
This is a perception that can easily take hold since there has been a steady clamping down on the amount of information being released to the public.
When the first case was reported, sufficient information was provided, including the age and gender of that patient, to provide an acceptable level of transparency without breaching patient confidentiality.
However, in the days that followed, the authorities have been less open about the spread of the coronavirus, providing just basic figures and repeating warnings about the need to “flatten the curve” in twice daily press releases.
It certainly hasn’t helped that the main spokespersons are becoming increasingly defensive in their responses to probing media questions at the briefings which are broadcast live.
This not-too-subtle shift in messaging can erode public trust in government’s COVID-19 strategy and opens up many loopholes for the spread of fake news about the pandemic. This is a development that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has already labelled as an “infodemic” and if it takes hold in this country it will defeat the best public health efforts to keep the virus at bay.
We therefore want to remind Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh, who is growing increasingly impatient at the daily barrage of questions from reporters, that interacting with the media in an open and transparent manner is the best way to build and maintain trust with the wider public.
It is viital, especially during this period when the majority of citizens are required to stay indoors, that they are able to participate in and access information about COVID-19 decisions. This is where the media comes in as a vital channel for that information. Reporters are asking questions on behalf of citizens who need to be supplied with sufficient information to understand why they are being asked to make increasing sacrifices in their daily lives for the greater good of public health.
Demonstrating transparency rather than obfuscation requires an additional effort on the part of the authorities but it is essential, at every stage of steering T&T through this pandemic, that all their actions are clearly and quickly explained to the public. To do otherwise would inflict damage that will persist long after this coronavirus crisis has passed.
There have been precedents set in other parts of the world which prove that tranparency with pandemic data has helped experts and citizens improve their understanding of how the virus functions, allaying fears and dispelling fake news
What will most benefit citizens is transparent communication of the public health strategy for tackling the coronavirus via regular press briefings and releases. That means consistently answering questions about COVID-19 in a manner that will protect citizens from an “infodemic.”