A solid relationship between the state and its citizens, built on communication, will go a long way towards a more responsible and effective COVID-19 policy response, writes Fayyaz Yaseen
As the world braces itself through the COVID-19 epidemic, the United Nations has warned that Pakistan could be amongst the hardest hit countries. The country’s current number of coronavirus patients stands at around 3000, but this is against the backdrop of some of the lowest testing rates in the world. The poor health infrastructure in Pakistan has never been exposed in the manner it is being now. A complete lockdown seemed  to be the surest bet.

However, the kind of confusion this lockdown has caused is unprecedented. First, there was a clear lack of coordination between the federal and provincial governments. Secondly, people were not communicated with clearly about the scope and threat of the epidemic. This lack of communication created panic and distrust for the government. As we have seen during Pakistan’s lockdown, businesses have stayed open, people have continued to congregate in mosques, and kids play together in the streets.

In the meantime, social media has been replete with fake news, including bogus treatments for COVID-19 and rumors designed to terrify people by prohibiting hospital visits, even for sick patients. This added to the chaos instead of containing a panicked situation.

At Accountability Lab, we have responded to the challenge by launching the Coronavirus CivActs Campaign (CCC) – a project that debunks rumors, publishes verified information, and gathers feedback everyday on the coronavirus response in Pakistan through multi-language bulletins. The focus of the bulletins is health information around the epidemic, myths or rumours, and questions.

One of the learnings from the Lab’s CCC so far is that communications during epidemics are most effective when structured as a two-way process. Successful responses by public bodies are built on strong citizen feedback, along with government’s responses. Without being responsive to citizen needs, government bodies can quickly move towards authoritarianism, which saps citizen trust in public bodies.

During the current lockdown, for instance, the public is allowed to go out to buy goods for basic needs. However, there are cases of police unfairly targeting citizens with excessive force or bribery, causing some people to take the law into their own hands in response. This could be avoided if the government is proactive in responding to citizen needs during the lockdown. Government’s various departments, including the police, need clear, humane instructions on how to deal with the public during this lockdown period.

As the government itself admits, the fight against the coronavirus epidemic is going to be a long one. In order to come out of the epidemic with the least amount of damage and push back against a health, economic, and governance crisis, citizens need to be equipped with verified and trustworthy information. A solid relationship between the state and its citizens, built on communication, will go a long way towards a more responsible and effective COVID-19 policy response.

Fayyaz Yaseen is Country Director for Accountability Lab Pakistan. The article was originally published as a guest blog for Feedback Labs available here.