PETALING JAYA: A mass text message was sent out by the National Security Council (MKN) informing those who attended a wedding in Bukit Mertajam on Aug 29 to contact the Health Department.
That’s just one example of the type of messages that MKN has been blasting out since March about measures to contain Covid-19.
Just recently, it provided data about Covid-19 fatalities in Malaysia: the youngest victim was 23 years old while the oldest was 101.
Data has also been given about the clusters that emerged in the country.
Public health and communications experts have acknowledged that the ministry and MKN had a commendable track record of disseminating timely and sufficient information to the public.
Senior lecturer of communication and media studies Shahnon Mohamed Salleh said their communication had improved tremendously since the onset of the pandemic in the country.
“During the earlier stages of the movement control order that started on March 18, there was a lot of confusion and speculation due to the absence of a proper command or channel of communication.“Generally, the communication is already there now and the government has been quite transparent but, of course, additional information is always good, ” said the Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM) lecturer.
Shahnon said details of a specific location where Covid-19 cases were prevalent should be made public so that people were aware of where they could travel to and which places to avoid.
Malaysian Public Health Physicians’ Association president Datuk Dr Zainal Ariffin Omar shared a similar view, saying that the availability of information on the exact location of index cases such as the village where the infected person lives as well as his travel history would enable people to make better decisions.
“We need to know where the positive cases have travelled to around town or to a wedding ceremony so people can know which places to avoid, ” he said.
However, Public Health Medicine Specialist of University Malaya Medical Centre Assoc Prof Dr Rafdzah Ahmad Zaki believes that informing the public on the areas with positive cases without revealing detailed information about the infected person would be sufficient in helping others to stay vigilant.
Although detailed information about the movement of an infected person is crucial for the tracing process and controlling the spread of the virus, Dr Rafdzah said it had limited effects if it was made available to the public.
“This information will be useful to an epidemiologist or those conducting investigation and contact tracing but publicising personal information will put the patient at risk of social stigma.
“This could also discourage the exposed or infected people from coming forward to get tested, ” she said.
Dr Rafdzah noted that knowing a specific shop or location that had been visited by a positive case a few days earlier would not change the preventive measures taken by the public.
“As part of contact tracing activity, the health authorities will ensure locations that have been visited by a Covid-19 patient and any individual that has been in contact with the patient will be notified and preventive measures will be taken, ” she said.
Dr Ahmad Fitri Amir, a senior lecturer at UiTM’s tourism management faculty who has conducted research on persuasive crisis messaging, said people would evaluate the risks of contracting the virus based on the number of cases.
“If cases are low, people will tend to be more complacent, ” he said.
“But regardless of the number of cases, the government should remind the public about the danger of Covid-19.”
Fitri said the public would also interpret data such as age group and gender to their own advantage.
“If young people see that the number of infected persons is higher among those who are older, they may feel complacent and forget that they could actually cause an elderly person to be infected, ” he said.
As such, Fitri suggests that there should be frequent reminders on the consequences of breaching standard operating procedure.