Author: Riyani Sidek, GAIA
Public support for the government during a crisis gives political leaders the freedom and resources to implement life-saving measures — particularly against COVID-19. Trust is critical for sustaining public behaviour that is consistent with effective pandemic management. While the ‘rally round the flag effect‘ united Taiwan against COVID-19 and promoted compliance with public health measures, the opposite effect was felt in Malaysia.
With a population of around 23.8 million people, Taiwan has been applauded for its pandemic management after recording a relatively low COVID-19 infection rate compared to the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003. From March to early May 2003, public confidence in Taipei’s management of the SARS outbreak was low due to inadequate public health and protective measures.
The lack of trust in the Taiwanese government during the SARS outbreak led to many quarantine orders being recklessly violated by citizens. Taiwan recorded the highest SARS mortality rate worldwide, with 680 cases and 81 deaths by 1 June 2003. Yet a change in the leadership of the SARS control task force under the former minister of health, Dr Chen Chien-jen, helped Taiwan make a rapid recovery and achieve effective epidemic control by July 2003.
COVID-19 reminded the public of the deadly legacy of SARS. Taiwan responded by ensuring broad transparency in its fight against COVID-19 through press conferences, news and social media platforms. These transparency measures helped engender strong public trust in government.
People responded with solidarity towards the government conducting contact tracing and addressing COVID-19 misinformation through its Central Epidemic Command Centre (CECC). Dr Chen Chien-jen and other leading epidemiologists from the successful 2003 SARS task force formed key members of the CECC. Their credibility and success engendered a high level of public support for Taipei’s COVID-19 public health measures.
The pandemic response in Malaysia was, by contrast, characterised by low public trust due to political volatility. The Perikatan Nasional (PN) government was broadly viewed as illegitimate when it came to power in late February 2020 — just weeks after the first COVID-19 case was detected in Malaysia. Still, the public was willing to accept social distancing restrictions when the government helped the victims of lockdowns between March and May 2020.
COVID-19 cases began to spike (around 17,000 daily cases) by late October 2020, forcing authorities to impose a lockdown. The lockdown gave the government an opportunity to secure its political position by restricting political activities and preventing public demonstrations against the government.
Unlike Taiwan, the public narrative in Malaysia drastically shifted against public compliance with COVID-19 guidelines. The decision to impose harsh fines on those breaching these guidelines was rejected by the public. While many ordinary Malaysians were not compensated for their income losses from COVID-19 restrictions, politicians and the elites repeatedly violated the restrictions with impunity.
The loss of faith in the Malaysian government materialised into a significant drop in public trust, resulting in poor compliance with COVID-19 measures. The ‘rally round the flag’ effect faded away as soon as the public realised that politicians were ignoring their own restrictions. In a fast-moving crisis, citizens look to their government for information, guidance and leadership. Every crisis has an inflection point at which the level of public trust determines whether a ‘rally round the flag’ will successfully aid the handling of the crisis.
Public compliance with social distancing orders is a measure of public support for combatting COVID-19. Taiwan’s high public support for COVID-19 preventative measures was partially a legacy of the 2003 SARS outbreak when poor public compliance resulted in high fatalities. The change of health leadership in managing the 2003 SARS outbreak paved the way for a successful COVID-19 pandemic control effort spearheaded by the Taiwanese CECC. Taiwan also maintained high public trust by acting transparently when handling COVID-19.
The ‘rally round the flag’ effect fell short in a less transparent Malaysia. The national pandemic management strategy was interpreted by Malaysians as an attempt to exploit public compliance in the pursuit of political power.
As the search for an optimum pandemic management strategy continues, what remains certain is that governments need to invest in building public trust. Without trust, the national goal of containing and ultimately preventing the spread of infections will be more difficult to achieve.
Riyani Sidek is a Research Associate at the Global Awareness and Impact Alliance (GAIA).
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