Messaging to gain trust
DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco (The Philippine Star) - May 25, 2020 - 12:00am

From my decades of experience in managing crisis communication, it is important to have one’s messaging well thought out to win trust.

Last week, government messaging made it difficult to make people cooperate with their efforts to control the Wuhan virus epidemic.

Any crisis communication starts with the top leader. He has to win public confidence not just with what he says, but also with what he does. Our President’s decision to keep a top police officer is a real downer.

The President delivered the message that quarantine rules don’t apply to those close to him… only for ordinary Juan. The top police officer should at least be suspended while his case is pending. Afterall, he was found by the PNP internal affairs investigation to have violated quarantine rules with his birthday party.

Then there is Duque. The health secretary told a number of “alternative truths” in a Senate hearing. He dumbfounded everyone with a claim that we are now on our second wave of infection and that we have flattened the curve.

Anyone who has seen our graph of cases and has compared that with those of other countries would know we are still on our first wave. We have only plateaued.

Worse, it is a higher plateau than official numbers say. DOH says there are 13,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus disease 2019 or COVID-19, but there are 19,000 who have tested positive still being verified by DOH.

Duque’s claim was so outrageous, three cabinet members disowned it: Executive Secretary Medialdea, DILG Sec Año and Spokesman Roque. The DOH later on issued a statement withdrawing Duque’s claim and confirming we are still on the first wave.

But a Duque subordinate tried to obfuscate the issue. We had the “first major wave of sustained transmission,” he said, insisting the first three imported cases is the first wave. Justifying his earlier claim of a second wave, Duque said it was just “a casual expression of an epidemiologic fact.”

Then he said something else that got people confused. He said only symptomatic cases are contagious. It was seen as an attempt to minimize the failure of DOH to identify asymptomatic cases through more testing.

Some medical associations also attempted to downplay the need for more testing using the antibody method which is faster and cheaper.

The head of the Philippine Society of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases said such tests have “no added value” when it comes to testing those who are asymptomatic.

She said that the more cost-effective strategy for companies would be to maintain minimum health standards which include: social distancing, hand washing, proper ventilation, refraining from spitting, and daily symptom screening.

But we still need to know who has the virus. The Cleveland Clinic, for instance, noted “asymptomatic shedding (spreading the virus even if symptoms aren’t present or before they appear) may account for up to 60 percent of cases.”

Besides, a DOH rule seems to imply the danger of having asymptomatic people running loose. That’s why they built all those isolation centers in sports arenas. So how do we know who they are unless we test?

Poor Joey Concepcion reacted badly to the PSMID position. His bad choice of words was seen by some as disparaging all doctors.

Cut Joey some slack. He is tired and frustrated. He is busy trying to bring the economy back, and his advocacy of using rapid testing for returning employees of private firms is an accepted strategy abroad.

The World Economic Forum supports Joey’s position: “China and Singapore are currently prioritizing the blood tests. These do not test for the virus DNA like the PCR testing, but rather the body’s immune response to the virus.

“‘Serological’ testing allows us to see who was infected and who wasn’t infected, and then how many people were marked with symptoms versus not, that gives a truer scope of the coronavirus epidemic. It also gives us a more accurate mortality rate of this new virus.”

In the end, Duque is just seen as trying to justify his failure to do more testing.

Indeed, the Red Cross led by Sen. Dick Gordon has done 45 percent of the testing last week while 21 percent were from other private laboratories. RITM conducted 16 percent while 18 percent was carried out in other government laboratories, Vince Dizon told the Senate.

Duque is supposed to be the top official managing this health crisis. Handling a crisis of this importance demands total credibility which the health secretary no longer has.

Of course, we still remember how Duque delayed shutting down the country from visitors, particularly from China out of fear of displeasing China. How many people died because Duque was worried about China’s feelings?

In the United States, Columbia University disease modelers say if they had begun locking down cities and limiting social contact on March 1, two weeks earlier than when most people started staying home, a vast majority of the nation’s deaths — about 83 percent — would have been avoided. We also locked down March 16.

Indeed, Duterte knows the limitations of Duque. He assigned the job of managing the crisis to General Carlito Galvez after seeing Duque’s lack of management skills. Vince Dizon of BCDA was tapped to quickly build isolation centers in sports arenas.

And it seems that the President believes in the value of antibody testing because that is what they are using to screen visitors in Malacanang. Duterte also again appointed Dizon as testing chief to cover up another Duque failure.

This crisis will be with us for some time more. The secret of successful countries in this COVID-19 fight is trust in government leadership. People can no longer trust Duque, thanks to his many missteps. His colleagues in the Cabinet must be rolling their eyes at the mention of his name.

Duque’s performance has also hurt our national reputation. A Hong Kong-based venture capital firm placed the Philippines dead last on a list of countries in Asia Pacific considered the safest during the coronavirus pandemic.

For the good of the country, Duterte must change Duque now before he does more damage. Remember… Duque’s failures may mean needless deaths for Filipinos in these perilous times.

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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