Telum Talks To... Boo Su-Lyn, Editor-in-Chief at CodeBlue, about working through the COVID-19 crisis

Telum Talks To... Boo Su-Lyn, Editor-in-Chief at CodeBlue, about working through the COVID-19 crisis

The Malaysian government issued its Movement Control Order (MCO) on 18th March and it has affected millions of people, including many journalists who now have to work from home. Does the working from home policy pose any challenges for the media?
Working from home generally doesn't pose a challenge for online news sites like CodeBlue. Broadcast and print journalists would probably still need to cover physical press conferences or go to the office, but they likely wouldn't face problems as they have received permission from the government to move around for work. However, in my opinion, ministers and top officials should reduce face-to-face meetings, including press conferences, as much as possible because there's always a risk of Covid-19 infection whenever you go outside, regardless of social distancing measures. The 1-metre rule for safe distancing isn't absolute. Research has found that simply speaking at a normal tone may transmit coronavirus, while sneezing can spread pathogens as far as 8 metres.

It's not difficult to hold press conferences through online video-conferencing platforms like Zoom, where reporters can ask questions in real-time from the safety of their homes. So I don't see why they can't start doing it now, or even for a time after the MCO is lifted. High-profile figures typically meet many people in their work, so the infection risk is probably higher among politicians.  

Does all the stories that you are covering now have a COVID-19 angle? Or are there other types of health news or stories that you are interested in hearing about? 
CodeBlue mostly covers Covid-19 news because that is still the issue of the day, but we focus on the health care / medical aspects of the outbreak, such as the impact on public and private health care professionals. CodeBlue has interviewed an epidemiologist analysing Malaysia's public health response to the epidemic. We also highlighted the financial losses suffered by the private health care industry during the coronavirus outbreak. CodeBlue has also kept a close eye on issues faced by government doctors and pharmacists, like problems in getting the special Covid-19 allowance and the long-recurring problem of a lack of permanent posts for contract medical officers and pharmacists, even during this crisis. The government has announced some short-term solutions in response, but it remains to be seen if this is sufficient. CodeBlue is also fortunate to have veteran physicians like Dr Milton Lum contributing insightful columns for us, as well as government doctors writing about their personal experiences with Covid-19

How difficult is it to maintain the balance between reporting on timely coronavirus news, and not adding to the panic?
I do think the government sometimes underestimates people's intelligence. The key to combating public panic and misinformation is to release information and data. Transparency is what will curb panic because Malaysians will then know what exactly is going on. I don't think the authorities have released sufficient data on the outbreak, like official epidemiological models projecting the number of cases, deaths, and burden on the health care system (which have been published in countries like Indonesia or the US), or other information like the clinical features of Covid-19 patients and testing data. The last time the Ministry of Health (MOH) published testing data, including the number of pending test results, was on 5th April. 

Authorities were also reluctant to share information on where Covid-19 cases were detected, ever since the outbreak began in Malaysia last January. MOH initially dismissed all WhatsApp messages on locations as fake news, even though some were genuine. Data on cases in districts was only released after the tabligh cluster broke out. I hope the government will be more transparent in the days to come, as Covid-19 will probably be around for some time.

As people increasingly social distance themselves to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, social media is an appealing way to stay in contact with friends, family and colleagues. But it can also be a source of misinformation and bad advice. What has CodeBlue been doing to combat the rise of fake news?
We report official statements from the ministers and government officials, most of which are also available on their official Facebook pages for the public to access directly. But we also make sure to report criticisms from medical professionals and health care workers on the ground to highlight issues that the government may be missing, whether it's a shortage of personal protective equipment in government clinics or the lack of testing. Bear in mind also that some "fake news" may come from institutions themselves, like so-called disinfection chambers/ boxes. Experts would have different opinions on how best to tackle the Covid-19 epidemic. In various things, especially science, it's important to promote a diversity of views and to question the official narrative.

In your opinion, how will life be different for Malaysians after MCO is over, particularly in three to six months time?
Well, like the Prime Minister said, we have to adjust to a "new normal". I'm more worried about job losses and the unemployment rate. And if more private clinics and hospitals shutter over the next several months, it will further strain our public health care system that was already underfunded even before the Covid-19 crisis. So I hope the government will work together with businesses, experts, civil society, and people on the ground to come up with solutions together, instead of using a top-down approach that may not necessarily work.

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