KL Sentral Station on March 17 is almost empty. The Malaysian government issued a movement order to the public starting from March 18 until March 31. Photo: AFP/Farid Bin Tajuddin/Anadolu Agency

What a difference two weeks makes. When the history of the Covid-19 crisis is written, the first two weeks of March will mark the tipping point when the epidemic became a truly global emergency.

On March 7, the World Health Organization officially declared Covid-19 a pandemic. Several governments that had been playing down the seriousness of the outbreak so as not to start a public panic suddenly shifted gears into full-blown containment and mitigation mode. 

Malaysia was one of those countries that seemed to have the coronavirus at somewhat manageable levels, yet a sudden spike in cases – likely linked to a religious mass gathering of more than 16,000 participants – became a cause for alarm. On Monday, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced a nationwide movement-control order from March 18 to 31, in essence shutting down economic activity in the country.

The PM had earlier had calls from health experts to take this unprecedented, step but also faced a pushback by officials concerned over its economic costs to the country. 

One day later, Muhyiddin gave another televised address, in which he scolded those citizens who defied the order and were seen socializing in markets and public centers. This disconnect and seeming lack of concern by certain members of the public can perhaps be explained by the sudden shift in public messaging concerning the nature of the virus.

When the coronavirus first hit international headlines in mid-January and through much of February, governments responded with health guidelines that highlighted the ease of contracting the virus and necessary protective safeguards such as face masks and hand sanitizer.

Covid-19 was initially compared with the traditional flu, which may have added to a sense of complacency concerning the severity of the virus. In terms of public perception, the emphasis was on the personal threat, which concentrates more highly on the elderly demographic.

The missing link in the media narrative was the stealth transmission effect, which has only been emphasized recently as governments experienced rapid spikes in reported cases. What is clear is that many of those who chose to defy government instructions and attend large events believe they are only placing themselves in individual risk and not the larger community. 

What is also clear is that governments have been forced to take drastic action before they can adequately explain the overall group risk factor of the pandemic to their citizenry. There are some shining exceptions though, such as Singapore and South Korea, which employed effective communication strategies early on concurrently with their containment efforts. 

It is incumbent upon governments to explain through public awareness campaigns not only the “what” of the dangers of the virus, but also the “why” of the reasoning behind any potential lockdown.

In their communication efforts, they should elaborate on the health risk of individual infection coupled with the risk that any anyone can potentially be a carrier. The flattening of the Covid-19 curve should then be translated as a wider civic duty, which could lead to better compliance with social distancing guidelines.

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Saqib Sheikh

Saqib Sheikh serves as project director of the Rohingya Project, a grassroots initiative for financial inclusion of stateless Rohingya worldwide, as well as adviser/co-founder for the Refugee Coalition of Malaysia, a network of 14 refugee communities based in Malaysia. He received his master's in communication from Purdue University in Indiana. He currently lectures on media and communication at Sunway University in Malaysia.