Dennis Ignatius on Coronavirus: Government Must Get Its Act Together Quickly

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Clarity of rules and expectations is key to avoiding panic, confusion and misunderstanding.

We are now into the fourth day of the movement control order (MCO) initiated by the government to contain the spread of coronavirus. While Malaysians will no doubt be supportive of measures taken to protect them from, what is by all counts, a serious health emergency, the government owes it to the people to act promptly with transparency and clarity to avoid confusion and panic.

It should have learned something from the panic buying that was sparked a few days ago when the government indicated that a major announcement on the crisis was in the offing. With too much ambiguity and uncertainty about what to expect, people reached their own conclusions and rushed to stock up on essential supplies.

Now, news that the army is going to be deployed beginning Sunday is causing similar panic. Without a clear explanation as to why the army is being called in and with contradictory statements coming from the ministry of defence, people are wondering whether it is a prelude to harsher restrictions. The result, predictably, is yet longer lines at supermarkets.

General Arshad Raji of Patriots has questioned the need to deploy the army; many Malaysians will agree with him. After all, we have more than enough police to enforce the MCO. If the minister of defence wants to be useful, he should consider asking the army to set up field hospitals or testing centres to help cope with the pandemic instead of putting troops on the streets where they would be superfluous.

In the meantime, the government must understand that every statement it makes and every policy decision it takes will have consequences. It must think through all aspects of its decisions and statements. Former MITI minister Rafidah Aziz summed it up well when she urged Putrajaya “to think before announcing measures.”

And for heaven’s sake, can the government itself stopping spreading false information as the health minister did yesterday when he suggested that drinking warm water could flush out coronavirus. That’s the kind of advice you’d expect from our Raja Bomoh not the minister of health.

The government is always urging people to stop spreading fake news; it is too much to expect the government to heed its own advice?

There is also a lot of confusion about what the MCO involves. A video is being widely circulated, for example, of a police officer telling a driver that only one person in each family is allowed to go out at a time to buy groceries. One of our ministers, on the other hand, says only the head of the family is allowed out to purchase supplies. So, what exactly is the rule?

Yusof Mat Isa

And, if that is the order of the day, why hasn’t it been highlighted before? Are they making up rules on the fly? Can’t they even agree on a common position? Whose interpretation are we to follow? Can’t they have a single spokesperson on all matters pertaining to the MCO?

Of course, there is the hotline but what’s the point of having a hotline if it is continuously busy? Perhaps public television can run programs like what CNN is doing where people can call in to have their questions answered.

Clearly, the more information and clear instructions there are on these matters the easier it will be for the public to comply. It’s not fair to blame the public for flouting the rules when the rules themselves are not clear.

To be sure, this is a new experience for all of us – government and people – and we are going to have to make adjustments as the situation progresses. Whatever it is, clarity of rules and expectations is key to avoiding panic, confusion and misunderstanding.

The only way we are going to overcome this crisis is for the government and people to work together. For that to happen the government must take the people into its confidence, provide timely updates and honest assessments of the situation and respond with transparency and clarity. After all, nobody has a greater stake in the health and safety of the country than the people themselves.

Muhyiddin and his Perikatan Nasional government went behind our backs to take over Putrajaya; now they must demonstrate that they have the capacity to lead. So far, their performance is far from inspiring.