I passed by my sports club on Tuesday to pay my monthly bill. While there, I also inquired if the club’s sports and dining facilities would reopen even partially once Metro Manila reverted to General Community Quarantine (GCQ) starting Sept. 8, as announced. The reply to me was that despite a call to authorities that morning for clarification, the matter remained unclear.
By late Tuesday, government officials announced that Metro Manila would instead keep the stricter MECQ status until Sept. 15, despite previous days’ declaration that the looser GCQ would apply from Sept. 8 onwards. Given the last-minute flip-flop on quarantine status, I don’t blame my sports club as well as local authorities for being confused. Who wouldn’t be?
I can imagine similar confusion, and perhaps frustration, on the part of businesses that have no choice but to wait and follow government pronouncements as they plan their daily operations. I’ve read a number of comments on social media on how many businesses have already recalled staff and restocked inventory in preparation for reopening. All for naught, it seems.
To be told very late in the day that it would be no-go for them until Sept. 15 at least, was like kicking a man down as he tried to get up from his sick bed. Businesses, more so small and medium, are all struggling. Many are barely surviving. Even big exporters are having a hard time due to a surge in shipping charges, among other reasons. Flip-flops just worsen their situation.
Corporate planning and budgeting used to be done annually, and in line with strategic objectives. But now, everything is on corporate triage, with the sole aim of surviving the next month, or the next quarter. The assignment of degrees of urgency determines the order by which things are done or paid for. Budgets are realigned to prioritize workers’ health and business continuity.
These are the realities that we all have to live with now, unfortunately. In my case, as a business consultant, I have been waiting on a number of reports from various sources, as needed by my clients. But, with the ECQ since Aug. 6, and then MECQ since Aug. 21, many public and private offices have only skeletal workforce in place. Reports are not a priority for them now.
I can understand why the government opted to keep the MECQ status quo. With the number of COVID-19 cases still on an upward trajectory, perhaps it is best to remain prudent and retain the lockdown for at least another week. However, from days back they already knew the trajectory. Why then even raise the possibility of GCQ by Sept. 8 when it was still unlikely?
God gave us two ears, one mouth, and a big brain between those ears. These are perfect proportions as they allow us to listen more, talk less, and, presumably, efficiently process whatever it is that we hear before we even open our mouths to speak. In this particular case of the GCQ announcement, however, obviously the government spoke too soon.
And this is where the communication process needs to be improved. There shouldn’t be any second-guessing, and people should be given clear, concise, and correct information that can be relied on as credible and certain. Indecisiveness and uncertainty have their price in our present predicament. To businesses, it can mean losses. But for people, it can mean poverty and loss of lives.
Triage has become a practical tool at work and at home to determine priorities, and the allocation of resources. But even the dissemination of information to the public can undergo some form of triage. The early assignment of degrees of urgency determines the order and timing by which information is conveyed.
Clarity of message comes only from clarity of thought. What is not clear in one’s head will not come out clearly from one’s mouth. If the government itself is confused, then the people will also be confused. We need better coordination and planning of government initiatives and pronouncements, and better processing of how to best communicate them and when.
When people make mistakes, they suffer the consequences of their mistakes. They can also be made accountable and liable for their mistakes. But when the government makes a mistake, even in communication, then everybody suffers. And, rarely will a government admit its mistake. The government is right, even when it is wrong.
Greater economic losses and hardship can arise from vacillation, hesitation, and the inability to efficiently processes statistics and scientific data. Well-informed choices come from good and timely research, and efficient synthesis of quality information. But, crucial to all this is timing of dissemination. Good intelligence and analysis are useful only when used and distributed timely. Otherwise, such information all become history. Today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s fish wrapper.
People need to be able to rely on their governments to do what it is in their best interest, in a timely manner. They should also be able to relay on government information as factual, honest, and credible. Otherwise, it will all be about getting any information that they can come by, from any source. And in this digital era of fake news, deep fakes, and misinformation, this can be very dangerous.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council