Transparency required during an emerging public health crisis
Opinion piece published in the El Paso Times - March 12, 2020
Effective governance requires public transparency because it promotes accountability, trust, and the safety of the citizens that elected officials are sworn to protect.
In December, a group of mysterious viral pneumonia cases appeared in Wuhan, China. The cause of the first illnesses, which have since spread around the world, was identified as a new severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), otherwise known as Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Just one month after the first rash of cases was detected, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. Amid a rapidly changing situation, in a time when most people can access an abundance of information within seconds, the public faces the challenge of sifting through confusing reports to make decisions that can mean life or death. At the same time, governments and public health authorities are working to develop and implement effective responses while simultaneously easing the possibility of a general panic caused by the rapid spread of misinformation.
This past week the Texas House Public Health Committee held a hearing for state health department heads, leading specialty physicians, hospital administrators, and state education leaders to advise us of the current state of the crisis. These administrators and experts discussed the importance of the public knowing how the virus is spread, what to do to try to contain it, and what actions are being taken in response to this emerging crisis. Part of the message was the precautionary measures an individual can take to mitigate personal risk, including staying home when you are sick (self-quarantine), avoiding close contact with people who are sick, properly washing your hands for at least 20 seconds (especially after being in public spaces), covering your coughs and sneezes, and frequently disinfecting hard surfaces. The virus is spread by contaminated droplets that come into contact with a person’s mouth, nose, or eyes. Virus carriers sometimes display no symptoms but can infect others.
So, how does the coronavirus crisis relate to the importance of transparent communication from trusted authorities? It is evident to public health officials and governments at all levels that open and reliable communication and the accurate reporting of that information from trusted authorities is one of the most important factors impacting our ability to manage these types of situations effectively. Information that is proactively communicated between agencies and to the public clearly and concisely helps to build trust so that protective behaviors that are rooted in evidence are more willingly adopted. When individuals and communities take measures to protect themselves against disease, we can then reduce the spread of infection, which leads to responsible decision-making and more efficient use of essential yet limited resources.
For us to work through these very trying times of uncertainty, elected officials must be candid about the severe dangers posed by the coronavirus to our elderly and persons with serious health conditions. We cannot continue to view this disease as one that infects individuals in a far-off land but as a systemic infection in our backyard. We must denounce the urge to exploit this situation as an opportunity to advance a partisan platform, but rather work together to inform vulnerable populations of appropriate precautionary measures. Transparency mandates the release of information to the public to protect our communities.