Coronavirus: Don’t panic, Malaysians! Listen to the Health Ministry, not xenophobes

A Malaysian health quarantine officer distributes leaflets about the Wuhan Pneumonia to passengers at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang January 21, 2020. — Reuters pic
A Malaysian health quarantine officer distributes leaflets about the Wuhan Pneumonia to passengers at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang January 21, 2020. — Reuters pic

COMMENTARY, Jan 27 — It did not take long for the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak in China to take on a racial slant in Malaysia, roughly two weeks since the first death was reported there and just a day after the first positive cases reported here.

Already, Malaysian social media is awash with insensitive accusations that the outbreak is “divine retribution” for China over its persecution of the Uighurs. 

An online petition has kicked off, urging Putrajaya to block all and any Chinese nationals from entering the country.

The reason for this panic over Chinese nationals can be attributed to the prejudice that some Malaysians already have against them — unfortunately exacerbated by the many bad experiences and reports of their behaviour when abroad.

As media practitioners, let this outbreak be an opportunity for us to practise sensible and responsible reporting in times of a public health crisis.

A good start can be by referring to the International Federation of Red Cross’ comprehensive guide for the media on communicating in public health emergencies released in 2018.

For this current outbreak, among others it is important for journalists to at least know the basic information about the coronavirus, but we must also identify sources that can provide correct information to the public.

Media should also only use trusted voices such as a combination of health experts, community leaders, and someone the public can relate to. But this step should propagate the correct guidance.

 

 

Any fear-mongering and bigoted response that only serves to escalate panic should not be amplified, or at least not presented without critical dissection.

The onus is on us to counter rumours, and help the public to ask the right questions.

But most importantly, this is one time where we should rely on the Health Ministry for official information — rather than relying on other authorities and figures looking for quick publicity.

This is not to say we should not be critical of Putrajaya. We expect the ministry, Minister Datuk Seri Dzulkefly Ahmad and director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah to always keep us in the loop, to be transparent, and release information promptly so the public will not resort to baseless misinformation — something that they have excelled at so far.

As readers, we can start by not simply spreading random posts, no matter how well our intention is.

Again, the Health Ministry should be our main source of information. Choose your news providers wisely.

Take a deep breath and step back from social media as emotions run high.

These are easy steps to follow: always keep your body and hands clean, avoid crowded areas if you are travelling to any places affected by the outbreak, carry medical masks if you need to, and seek a health professional as soon as you fall ill following such visits.

Our health professionals are already hard at work tackling this problem. Let us direct our energy and support towards backing them, not to stoke xenophobia.

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