Information on public health emergencies during a pandemic cannot be hidden from the public. At a time of crisis, genuine information not only helps people to be aware but also helps them prepare themselves, stated health experts and rights activists at an online webinar.
Speakers at the webinar said that the awareness and seriousness of people across the country regarding Covid-19 have now decreased due to the declining flow of information from the government, read the press release.
Besides publishing daily bulletins, it is necessary to hold a press conference at least once a week with the opportunity to hold question and answer sessions, the speakers suggested.
Faruq Faisel, the moderator of the webinar, presented highlights of the violation of the right to information, obstruction of the flow of information, and lack of transparency.
He said that from March to June 2020, Article 19 (a British human-rights organisation) recorded 1,929 cases of violation of freedom of expression and right to information in the country. The number of victims in these incidents is 2,613. During this time, 768 cases of violation of the right to expression were recorded.
IEDCR Advisor Dr. Mushtaq Hossain said, "While officials in the health department and other government offices cannot share all information such as personal information, they can still share information regarding the disease and related scientific matters."
"Many doctors did not treat patients suffering from common fevers, colds, coughs, etc. for fear of contracting Covid-19 in the early stages of the crisis. Therefore, people need to be empowered by providing risk-related information, so that they can take appropriate measures to protect themselves," he said.
"It is imperative that press conferences, with journalists present, are held at least once a week to answer such questions. The National Advisory Committee on Covid-19 has also agreed with such a similar opinion," Mushtaq added.
Speaking as the moderator, Faruq Faisel said, "Due to the novel nature of the coronavirus, this experience is new to everyone. There was a lack of awareness among journalists, as well, at the beginning regarding reporting on Covid-19."
"Many did not know how to report a pandemic while keeping themselves safe. It is necessary to increase the capacity of journalists in these matters. People should also take the initiative to raise awareness and learn without being dependant on the government," Faruq added.
Commenting on the flow of information and right to information, Dr. AKM Shamsuzzaman said, "According to international health regulations, the World Health Organization has specific guidelines on what information can and cannot be released during a pandemic."
The government has the obligation to disclose and provide the people with urgent information about Covid-19. Similarly, according to the information received, it is the responsibility of the people to be aware and abide by the health rules."
BSD Barisal District Committee Member Secretary Dr. Manisha Chakraborty said, "The government's strategy to deal with the pandemic has undoubtedly shown a tendency to hide information from the very beginning of the crisis."
"During this period, the expression of information and independent opinion has been snatched from the census without being a tool of public awareness. Due to the lack of free flow of information, there have been several inhumane fraud and corruption cases related to Covid-19," she added.
Emphasising the use of the Right to Information Act, Sumna S. Mahmud, chief of party of The Carter Centre Bangladesh said, "The use and application of the Right to Information Act were not seen during the pandemic. One of the reasons is that we do not practice the use of this law in our daily lives."
"However, using this law, people of all walks of life can demand disclosure of necessary information. '' She further pointed out that the female population of the country is unable to get proper information about Covid-19, especially marginalised women who are being deprived of accurate information.
TMMS's Health Department Chief Dr. Md. Matiur Rahman called for a far-reaching plan based on the learning from the recent past to deal with Covid-19. He said, "Initially there was mismanagement, panic, and sufferings but now our doctors and health workers are confident about Covid-19 treatment."
"However, one thing is clear that the majority of people are not following hygiene rules. Many scientific facts about the risk of coronavirus are still unknown. So, there is no alternative but to follow the hygiene rules."
The webinar titled "Covid-19: Pandemic, People, Government and Right to Information" was organised by Article 19 on September 26 on the occasion of the International Day for Universal Access to Information (September 28). This year Unesco's theme for this significant day is: Saving Lives, Building Trust, Bringing Hope.
Dr. AKM Shamsuzzaman, director of the National Institute of Laboratory Medicine and Referral Centre and Professor of Microbiology, spoke on the webinar hosted by Faruq Faisel, regional director of Article 19 Bangladesh and South Asia.
Panelists also included the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) Adviser, Dr. Mushtaq Hossain, Bangladesh Somajtantrik Dal (BSD) Barisal District Committee Member Secretary, Dr. Manisha Chakraborty, Deputy Executive Director of the Non-government development organisation TMSS, and Head of its Health Department, Dr. Md. Matiur Rahman, and The Carter Centre Bangladesh's Chief of Party, Sumona S. Mahmood.