Coronavirus: How they covered it

Terminal 3, Changi Airport, Singapore,Photo:Hugh Lle

A look at how the media responded to the biggest story of the week.

The deadly coronavirus has dominated global headlines since the turn of the year. Given their proximity to China, the probability of the virus spreading to Southeast Asian countries was high. Now, regional governments are under scrutiny for their approaches to dealing with the threat, reacting to new developments and putting measures in place to contain the spread of the virus.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the disparity in resources available and where they stand in relation to Beijing, ASEAN nations have reacted in different ways. As has the regional media.

When everyone goes left, Hun Sen goes right

Amid growing proximity between Cambodia and Beijing, as most countries restricted travel and brought their citizens home, Cambodia did nothing of the sort. Prime Minister Hun Sen headed to China and even requested to visit Wuhan, where the virus originated.

As The Diplomat reported, “That close relationship with China has shaped Phnom Penh’s response to the coronavirus outbreak from the beginning”. Meanwhile, The Khmer Times proclaimed: “This can be regarded as the new era of Cambodia’s foreign policy. Humanitarianism and moral responsibility are part and parcel of Cambodia’s foreign policy and international cooperation.”

Malaysia and Singapore sought to contain public panic

Geographically close to China, Singapore and Malaysia have drawn praise for their actions. With an emphasis in Malaysia on avoiding panic, the Malay Mail urged the country to take inspiration from how it handled, among other epidemics, SARS and swine flu. “Based on their track record, perhaps we should give Malaysia’s health officials the benefit of the doubt…we should all have more confidence in our health professionals and the health system in general.”

Expanding on that theme, Dr Khor Swee Kheng, writing in The Star, proposed a three-stage plan for the government. Guarding against complacency (“It is an open-ended marathon, not a short-term sprint”) he urged the Ministry of Health to engage and rotate as many health professionals as possible, ensure accurate and consistent communication with the public and reassure the public that the system will continue to offer routine day-to-day care – “Business as usual must continue”.

Philippines kid with face mask wuhan virus
Photo: Rainier Ampongan

In The Straits Times, Chua Mui Hoong followed suit, trying to apply lessons learned from the SARS outbreak to Singapore’s current situation. “The battle against the virus will be as much about mindsets as medicine,” she warned. “Do not give in to paranoia or fear. Keep calm and carry on. Because we are in it together.”

Meanwhile, in Vietnam, a travel ban was implemented, then relaxed. The country is doing what it can to fight the spread of the virus but also faces another battle: misinformation and the propagation of fake news. “Coronavirus rumours have spread faster than the virus itself, making the rapid spread of misinformation more worrying than the spread of the virus,” an op-ed in Vietnam News reported.

In Indonesia, some questioned the efficacy of a travel ban

In Indonesia, the government imposed a travel ban, despite warnings of repercussions from Beijing. However, writing in The Jakarta Post, air travel experts Lucy Budd and Stephen Ison argued that travel bans cannot contain the spread of the virus.

“It does not mean these interventions have no benefit, but it is likely to be modest. The rapid global spread of recent outbreaks has shown that they are usually introduced after the event and that their efficacy has been limited.” They concluded that travel bans are often more valuable for governments, who need to be seen to be doing something, than for citizens, who gain little more than reassurance.

Things could get worse before they get better

Things may get worse before they get better, in Thailand and across the region. Writing in The Bangkok Post, Gwynne Dyer described coronavirus as a “black swan” event comparable to the Chernobyl disaster. If the spread continues, he argued it could cause a global recession, which would have a huge impact on ASEAN.

It could even lead to regime change, he claimed. “Remember that the lies and official incompetence that surrounded the Chernobyl disaster played a big part in making the Soviet public ripe for regime change a few years later. Could the coronavirus have a similar effect? It’s not likely, but it is certainly conceivable,” he writes.

The fight against coronavirus wages across multiple fronts – from health workers treating those infected to governments seeking to reassure citizens and limit its economic impact. The debate about what happens next varies from country to country, but one thing is clear: the crisis is not going away anytime soon. The coronavirus is, quite literally, a fast-moving and developing situation; its short-term and long-term impact on ASEAN will take some time to unravel.