Government officials should learn to speak with one voice. This is a basic communication principle that should have been in place nine months ago, when government, after much reluctance, acknowledged the existence of a health crisis. The number of COVID-19 infections and deaths had by then reached double digits and were rising steadily. Major regional centers were placed under lockdown and the pubic ordered to stay at home. The only way to make sense of the world was through regular information from government sources. It was generally unfocused, but understandably part of birth pains. Yet after nine months, this basic concept of speaking with one voice continues to elude government communication regarding the pandemic. Some government officials also seem to have failed to grasp the concept completely.
Crisis situations require government to act as a comforter to a confused and anxious public. They must communicate not only certainty, but competence and control. Contradicting statements convey the opposite. Not only do they tend to erode trust and confidence, they could lead to unnecessary friction on the ground between law enforcers and segments of the populace who heard the first statement but not the clarification.
Last week, this contradiction was again on full display. One senior official announced to media that children would be allowed to enter shoppings malls in Metro Manila as long as they were accompanied by their parents. This was hastily clarified by another official who emphasized that the policy would still need the approval of the concerned local governments, through ordinances passed by their respective city or municipal councils. However, two other officials disagreed totally and conveyed their sentiments through media. The matter was put to a rest when the mayors of Metro Manila voted unanimously against such a policy.
The policy to keep children out of shopping malls is correct. But the confusion caused by the contradicting statements of government officials was totally unnecessary and avoidable.
Is it difficult for government officials, particularly those directly involved in formulating lockdown-related policies under the auspices of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF), to deliberate and agree on a policy before it is announced to media? Is it a chore for a secretariat to put in writing the general points of agreement, and for the communications arm to type out the talking points for the officials? Is it a challenge to just have one person speak on behalf of the government on such matters, instead of the multitude of officials jostling for media attention?
At the risk of repeating myself, consistent and clear communication, especially during a crisis, is indispensable. And with experts warning of a surge in COVID-19 infections because of the Christmas season, keeping government communication tight and consistent becomes more urgent. Remember that the country is still in the middle of a pandemic that has thus far shown no clear pattern of slowing down. The wave has not dissipated, the curve has not flattened.
A repeat of the severe lockdown imposed during the first half of the year, and the attendant anxiety and confusion, would not only be unbearable to the economy. It could test to the limits government’s ability to extend needed services to the vulnerable while maintaining order. It could strain the social fabric.
The public has survived the last nine months in spite of the missteps and failings of authorities.
We can only hope that the public would continue to show forbearance. And the least the authorities can do is to provide them with the information they need, the care and compassion they require, and the service they deserve.
A parallel may be drawn with Noah’s biblical ark, which reached dry land after 40 days at sea, from where they began life anew. We have been under lockdown for a longer period, 90 days and counting. But unlike the ark, we remain adrift, with no land, even its barest promise, in sight. We only have our hope and our faith to sustain us through this ocean of uncertainty.