Facebook Hysteria Makes Bad Policy

Ultimately, these travel bans are the unfortunate result of uninformed mass hysteria driving bad public policy....  Amidst the cacophony of hysterical political discontent, governments would be hard-pressed to continue the more rational but unpopular policy of keeping the borders open.

Since the beginning, the Duterte administration’s most troublesome messaging issues have revolved around China. While the government’s messaging on banner policies such as the campaign against illegal drugs has resonated well with the majority of Filipinos, government communicators have had a difficult time convincing the people to accept the country’s 180-degree foreign relations pivot away from the United States towards China.

Despite the Philippine government’s best efforts to repaint its relationship with China, public trust in China remains significantly weak compared to the trust enjoyed by other major Philippine allies. Frequent controversies surrounding Beijing’s illegal activities in the West Philippine Sea, reports of disrespectful and even criminal conduct by Chinese tourists and workers in Manila and popular tourist destinations, and the proliferation of Chinese POGO hubs on our shores have done little to build this trust.

Thus, when President Duterte and prominent government officials initially rejected calls for a ban of all inbound travel from China to prevent against the spread of the Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) because “it would not be fair" to the Chinese or because the ban might adversely affect Philippine-Sino relations, the messaging was once again poorly received. Netizens derided the government’s position as yet another example of the Duterte administration’s subservience to Beijing. Some critics even characterized the government’s position as essentially valuing the welfare of Chinese tourists over the health and wellness of the Filipino people.

Ironically, the Duterte administration’s initial refusal to impose a China travel ban was consistent with the advice of the only non-governmental actor whose opinion should really matters when it comes to the 2019-nCoV epidemic - the World Health Organization (WHO).

Despite declaring the 2019-nCoV outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on January 30, WHO stated in the same report: “The Committee does not recommend any travel or trade restriction based on the current information available.” WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier even went so far as to say that apart from being generally ineffective in stopping the spread of disease, travel bans could actually help the virus spread undetected through by closing off formal measures to track potential carriers of the virus.

With this in mind, a much more palatable message from Philippine government spokespersons opposing the China travel ban would have been something as simple as this: “The Philippine government will not impose a travel ban because it will do little to protect public health and safety in the Philippines. Travel bans are not effective means of stopping the spread of any virus, including 2019-nCoV, and could actually result in the undetected spread of the virus within our borders.”

This messaging would have framed the refusal to implement a travel ban as a decision made with the interests of Philippine public health in mind. Communicated in this alternative fashion, critics would have had much less to work with in their attempts to pin the decision down as favoritism or even subservience to China. At the same time, it would have ended up protecting and even strengthening Philippine-Sino political, diplomatic, and economic relations, without even having to expressly mention it.

In the end, however, Malacañang eventually gave in to public pressure and has temporarily banned the entry of travelers from China and its Special Administrative Regions who are not Filipino citizens or permanent residents. This is not surprising, as many countries across the world have jumped on the bandwagon and imposed similar bans despite the advice of WHO. 

Ultimately, these travel bans are the unfortunate result of uninformed mass hysteria driving bad public policy. Catherine Worsnop of the University of Maryland summed it up nicely: “People want their government to do something when these outbreaks are happening, and adopting a border restriction is a visible policy that people think works.” Amidst the cacophony of hysterical political discontent, governments would be hard-pressed to continue the more rational but unpopular policy of keeping the borders open.

It is ironic that many who blamed the Duterte administration for the Philippines’ 8-year low GDP growth rate in 2019 were also some of the most vocal critics of the government’s initial refusal of the travel ban. While the travel ban will have little, if any, effect on actually preventing the spread of 2019-nCoV in the Philippines, it is poised to have a significantly negative impact on the Philippine economy. After all, China remains to be the Philippines’ top trade partner. Surely, completely restricting cross-border travel between the two countries for weeks or months as the 2019-nCoV saga unfolds will severely hamper the ability of Philippine and Chinese businesses to transact with one another.

In essence, this means that the Filipino people could end up paying the price for restoring the peace of mind of misinformed Facebook 2019-nCoV activists through an ultimately unnecessary slowdown of economic growth due to the travel ban. I hope the SJWs at fault will keep this in mind as they move on to their next self-righteous social media flame wars, decked out in the unfashionable and useless surgical masks they probably spent way too much money on.

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About the Author
Aureli, who currently serves as Executive Director of PUBLiCUS, is a senior political adviser and communications strategist specialising in legislative and executive public relations and brand management.
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