This commentary is written by Sofiah Jamil, a political analyst with expertise in non-traditional security issues, and the co-founder of Hornbills: Concepts and Communications in Singapore.
What a difference a few weeks can make. In contrast to the spotlight on China when the novel coronavirus first broke out in December, it has become clear in recent days that this is no longer – as some would call it – a “Chinese” problem. In fact, while the spread of the virus is tapering in China, the human-to-human spread amongst non-Chinese nationals is growing worldwide. Indeed, viruses do not carry passports.
Muslim-majority countries are not spared from this global outbreak. According to WHO statistics, as of March 3, 21 of the 74 countries that have confirmed cases of COVID-19 are member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
These 21 countries account for just over a third of the 57 OIC member states. If the virus is not effectively contained, there is a risk of infecting up to approximately 1.1 billion people – i.e. the total population of these 21 OIC member states. Granted that these countries’ populations include non-Muslims, it is nevertheless disconcerting given the fact that the figure is more than half of the estimated 1.9 billion Muslims worldwide.
In an era where efforts are geared at boosting economic development (and the halal economy) in Muslim-majority countries, it is unclear to what extent these countries – and the agencies involved – fully understand the wide-ranging ramifications that this global outbreak brings, and how best to mitigate them. As is slowly unfolding globally, the implications are not simply limited to adverse health issues, but crippling the very economic and public infrastructures that societies depend on to thrive, more so for the most vulnerable sections of society. The potential for socio-political backlashes as a result of these effects should also not be underestimated, especially for countries that do not have the pandemic preparedness capabilities to control the situation.
While the global community continues to navigate through these challenging times, truth, trust, and transparency, are essential and must work in tandem with one another.
TRUTH AND TRANSPARENCY
Truth and transparency suggests not only the importance of telling the truth, but more so knowing the truth and correcting false truths, particularly in the current age of social media.
In terms of telling the truth, governments’ responses to the COVID-19 outbreak – including those in Europe and North America – range from denial and accusations of delaying the release of critical information, to working cooperatively with inter-governmental agencies to stem the spread of the virus. What is clear from past pandemic outbreaks is that limited transparency does little to illicit trust from society, let alone allow for an effective mitigation of the virus.
Knowing the truth requires that government agencies, ministers, politicians and their media spokespersons are on top of things and are able to provide clear and evidence-based information. Correcting false truths is becoming increasingly vital as inaccurate content that go viral online can quickly stir distrust and panic within society. In this social media age, what is presumed to simply be a health issue, in actual fact also poses domestic security issues, and warrants inter-ministerial cooperation.
Some countries, such as Singapore, have already cracked down on individuals that have spread online falsehoods and potentially sowing societal discord, but more importantly, constantly providing updated information to clarify the mis-information.
TRANSPARENCY AND TRUST
Transparency also requires that governments’ statements are backed up by concrete actions and solutions for different sections of society, in order to build trust.
This is not only relevant domestically, but also internationally.
Saudi Arabia’s temporary suspension of umrah entries, and tourist visas for countries affected by the novel coronavirus, is a case in point.
On the one hand, such a response is commendable. As previously noted in a 2009 commentary on hajj pandemic preparedness that I co-authored, during the H1N1 outbreak the routine touching of objects of religious significance (such as the Kaaba and Black Stone), and communal prayer mats, in Makkah and Madinah pose a high risk of virus transmission. In addition, unlike H1N1, COVID-19 poses a greater risk of infection given that symptoms appear two weeks later, rather than three to five days.
On the other hand, how these actions are communicated with domestic and international stakeholders, may require further attention, particularly with umrah travel agencies whose clientele include Muslims that are not as well off, and cannot afford a loss in their umrah expenses.
It is also worth considering to what extent Islamic values and practices contribute to building or reducing transparency and trust.
In recent days, we have witnessed some government spokespersons in OIC member states emphasise their trust in God and in prayer for stemming the spread of the virus, rather than standard pandemic preparedness procedures. While the power of prayer is indeed significant for Muslims, tawakkul, or putting trust in God’s plan, must nevertheless be predicated by rational concrete action and preparedness.
Perhaps it is also equally important to consider Islam’s role in stemming the tendency to blame or sow distrust towards certain groups of people as being spreaders of the virus.
For instance, given the underlying ethnic tensions that lay in Indonesia, some observers of Indonesian politics have warned against the potential racist coronavirus fears. Indeed, incidents of discrimination as well as violent attacks against Chinese-looking individuals have already occurred in other parts of the world.
For the Muslim world, it is thus important to ensure that Islam is not mis-used to justify one’s level of hygiene and cleanliness over the presumed lack of cleanliness of others. Rather, principles relating to community and compassion should be emphasised.
The crisis is far from over, and in fact may very well be just starting for much of the Muslim world. If the SARS outbreak of 2003 is anything to go by, it is possible that the effects of this outbreak will be prolonged till summer. The ways in which governments in the Muslim world choose to respond to the crisis therefore needs to happen immediately and comprehensively.
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