We simply never learn


  • The Bowerbird Writes
  • Monday, 03 Feb 2020

WE are never good at managing crisis. Take the case of the Highland Towers collapse and the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370. The two cases were 21 years apart, but both incidents manifested our failure in managing crisis.

And now we are hit with the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Again we seem to falter in dealing with the scourge. Like the cases involving the tower collapse and the MH370, we are not putting in place the situation-based management system as fast and as effective as it should be. Perhaps we do not understand the roles and responsibilities of individuals and organisations in crisis management. We have yet to understand the need to communicate effectively to the people. The latest outbreak of the much dreaded Wuhan coronavirus is a classic example.

In 1993, social media was unheard of. In the case of the 2014 incident involving the Malaysia Airlines plane, it affected mostly families of those involved. The Wuhan strain on the other hand is infectious, dangerous and potentially fatal.

It is something new and scary. Unless contained it could become a full-scale global disaster. So far, it has spread faster than the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV) epidemic in 2003. Many more countries are reporting cases of people infected with the virus.

And worse, this time social media is taking centre stage, fanning all kind of news and reports, mostly fake ones, putting the masses in a state of fear and uncertainty. These irresponsible postings are stoking fear among the populace.

When the towers collapsed on Dec 11,1993, Malaysians were understandably shocked. It was unthinkable that those structures would succumb to a landslide. The authorities were initially shell-shocked themselves. Reporters were clamouring for news and updates. No one seemed to be in control, until much later.

When MH370 disappeared, again there was confusion. For many days all kinds of unsubstantiated news and stories were circulating. Family members both here and abroad, especially in China were incensed. Conspiracy theories were in abundance. No one seemed to be managing the chaos. It took Datuk Seri Hishamuddin Hussein, the then acting Transport Minister to bring sanity to the confusion.

He organised a daily press briefing together with heads of other relevant authorities.

The Health Ministry should have learned from the lessons of the Highland Towers collapse and MH370. This time, we are dealing with the people’s health and lives.

There is a possibility of a full-scale epidemic. And the public have every reason to be worried. Why can’t the ministry be more proactive in dealing with the case? People are expecting them to do better.

The fact that the “2019-nCoV” outbreak is new and unknown is terrible enough. People need to be told what it really is.

There must be explanation by experts to the masses. Unfortunately, there are many cases of harmless fever and flu around at the same time, so the level of worry escalates.

To make matters worse, the flu vaccines (most people are unsure if it is effective against the new strain) are hard to come by.

The public are expecting the ministry to set up a 24-hour helpline for those in doubts about the symptoms they are experiencing. They need to talk to people who know. Just reading articles about the new outbreak in the Internet is not good enough.

The social media is not helping. Like in most cases in Malaysia, even the discussion on whether to allow tourists from China to come has turned into a racially-charged issue.

Politicians are chipping in with racial undertones in their statements. In fact, there are many cases of over-reaction. And for reasons only known to those responsible, tourist attractions like mosques are closing its doors to Chinese visitors.

We must also not forget our citizens in China, especially in the most affected area, the Hubei province.

The good news is the government has decided an evacuation plan for them.

People want to know if there is a cure for the disease (sadly none, so far). How vulnerable are elders and toddlers to this virus? Will a vaccine jab or wearing a mask save you from the Wuhan coronavirus? Experts are saying that there is no cause for panic for the new virus appears to be less severe. But how sure are we?

In this coronavirus outbreak, we are not just dealing with real issues but also perceptions and rumours. And more importantly to allay fear due to misinformation or lack of information.

Johan Jaaffar was a journalist, editor and for some years chairman of a media company, and is passionate about all things literature and the arts. And a die-hard rugby fan. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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