A crisis of confidence

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    THE people are spreading fear and rumors.

    So claimed one of the President’s communications managers during a briefing on the state of affairs amidst the coronavirus breakout. He proceeded to enumerate the efforts the office he heads has taken to keep the public informed.

    He wasn’t far from the mark. Any scan of social media platforms will indeed make evident the number of posts and chats and messages from citizens exchanging facts and rumors, tips and threats, suggestions and criticisms – as well as all sorts of theories about the origins of the disease and the best way to end the outbreak.

    Why was this happening despite the efforts of the government to communicate to the public?

    The answer is simple: it is one thing to broadcast a message one, twice, five times or five million times. It is another thing for the public to hold the messenger in trust and confidence, crucial ingredients that determine whether a message is not only heard but also retained and absorbed.

    The whole coronavirus experience seems to indicate that the level of trust and confidence of the public in the government’s messaging structure – in the messengers as much as in the messages – is seriously low.

    Little things matter: it didn’t help that at a press conference conducted by the DOH early in the life of the coronavirus scare, netizens noticed, and made fun of, the use of a curtain as table runner. Haphazard preparations?

    It also didn’t help that as other countries announced a growing number of cases, we announced three. And stopped there. That left people wondering if we were truly a chosen people who were to be spared this scourge. Or were we not being told the truth?

    In my case it also didn’t help that the DOH announced proudly in mid-February that we “had enough test kits” but never revealed the actual number. I knew then that it was a lie and on Facebook challenged the DOH to reveal the actual number — and it was only two days ago that we were finally told that we only had 2,000 test kits.

    Test kits numbering 2,000 for a Metro Manila population of 12 million, or a national population of 100 million, or, okay, even just a POGO population of 300,000?

    And remember this: many people will desire to be tested with some out of paranoia and they will be found negative. How in heaven’s name can 2,000 be enough?

    So that’s what we are facing now in the Philippines, mainly in Metro Manila – a crisis of confidence in the ability of national authorities to manage this outbreak. With COVID cases now rising in number geometrically every passing day, I personally do not foresee how the government can get ahead of the curve on this because they’ve stumbled too often in the past and are even seemingly trying to mumble their way out of the mess they are now in.

    Expect the worst.