The COVID-19 pandemic is the first to occur in the digital era of hyper-connectivity. Not only that, many of us are in uncharted territory and have never experienced such a pandemic during our lifetime.
One may say, thank God it has occurred in the digital era, for a meaningful number of our activities and interactions has gone digital as physical meetings and interactions have to be minimised in order to control the spread of the disease.
During the pandemic period, we have witnessed a display of a variety of behaviour changes including panic buying, mass travelling during movement restriction and even absconding from treatment facilities.
How Malaysians rate their frontliners
In fighting to curb the pandemic from spreading widely among the population, in addition to the Movement Control Order (MCO), the Malaysian authorities, the police force and health workers became the frontliners in enforcing the SOPs for COVID-19 and treating patients who have caught the disease.
From the results of a study conducted by the author during the MCO in 2020, on 253 Malaysians, almost all the respondents (98.85%) were satisfied with the way Malaysian doctors and nurses performed their duties.
Some 95.7% of the respondents who were satisfied with the police and army said they were professional in carrying out their duties. The Malaysian government was praised by the people as most of them (95.3%) agree the government did well in combating the spread of COVID-19. Further, a large number (93.7%) also said they are satisfied with the action taken by the government and frontliners in combating the spread of the disease.
Social media creating panic
Social media has become centre stage in spreading information. During pandemics, social media is seen as playing a major role in spreading information, which has been termed as social media infodemic. This information or misinformation, at times, creates panic among the people. Some 43.5% of the respondents reported panic because of exposure to social media messages.
Meanwhile, 31.2% of the respondents said they panic because of reports by family members. This is followed by 27.7% of the respondents who said they panic because of reports by conventional media (TV, radio and newspapers). Reports from colleagues and friends (26.5%) are the least cause of panic among the interpersonal communication channels.
Besides media and communication channels, 51.4% of the respondents said they panic because of the curiosity to know more about COVID-19. This is some sort of unnecessary panic driven by curiosity. The ‘knowledge’ that COVID-19 is dangerous (79.1%) is the highest contributor of panic among the respondents. The ‘knowledge’ about the pandemic might have been built on media and interpersonal communication hype, creating unnecessary panic.
Activities during MCO and Lockdown
The MCO is accompanied by a lockdown restricting movement among the population. Hence, whilst at home, the people engaged in various activities. Almost all the respondents (96%) said they used social media to get information about COVID-19 as social media has now become a handy source of information.
Unlike the older and more traditional media, today many methods of sharing information have been subsumed by giant social media platforms that have incredible speed, reach, and penetration.
Second in the list of activities done at home during the MCO was talking with family (91.3%). Thus the MCO provided the opportunity for quality time with family members, thereby strengthening ties. This is followed by cooking (84.2%). Malaysians, especially the working class, who mainly eat outside became chefs during the MCO since movement was restricted and a large number of restaurants were closed.
Religiosity also increased during the MCO as Malaysians (79.4%) turned to God to seek solace by reading religious books. Other activities included work (online) from home (57.3%), watching TV (52.6%), sleeping more than usual (47%) and reading storybooks (39.1%).
Future actions towards pandemics
For future actions in such pandemic conditions, implementation of earlier MCO and more stringent measures will ensure sound mental health of the public.
The Facebook Preventive Health tool, for instance, provides individuals with vetted guidelines about preventive health recommendations and then directs users to geo-targeted locations where these services are available.
In Malaysia, there are already existing apps like MySejahtera which provides information about the pandemic thereby reducing community panic due to spread of fake news and unhelpful measures disproportionate to the cause.
In future more apps could be developed to provide information and needed direction to combat the spread of pandemics.
(This article is the result of a study conducted towards the end of 2020)
Associate Professor Dr Ali Salman is with the Faculty of Language Studies and Human Development at Universiti Malaysia Kelantan. He is also a researcher on Development Communication; New Media Audience Studies; Social Media and Politics; New Media and Entrepreneurship.