Balancing the information load – Saudi’s Ministry of Health and the Coronavirus

Do images such as this reassure or panic the public? (picture credit: Arab News)

When it comes to many issues, be it driving or otherwise, religion, and long beards, the Kingdom has always made the headlines. However, Saudi Arabia has been in the news recently for what could be an emerging health pandemic. The disease, named the Coronavirus, was first discovered and identified in the summer of 2012. Since then at least 30 people have died in Saudi Arabia from the Coronavirus according to the World Health Organization as reported by Reuters on the 31 May.

The country’s Ministry of Healthy has been criticized over a number of issues related to the Coronavirus. First up was the issue of firing the doctor who discovered the first case in the Kingdom and reported the virus (for the full story click on the link here for the piece on the UK’s The Guardian.

However, recent criticism has focused on a lack of transparency when releasing information about the Coronavirus. An article yesterday published in the English-daily Arab News was particularly scathing (by Saudi standards). I’m linking the article here and will quote in full below.

A specialist in infectious diseases said that withholding information by the Ministry of Health about the spread of the coronavirus following the deaths of the infected patients is significantly damaging and provides no benefit.

The specialist spoke on the condition of anonymity. He said citizens and residents in Saudi Arabia have the right to accessible information about the disease.

“I do not know why the Ministry of Health discreetly hid the information of the first case of Coronavirus in Saudi Arabia, and the infection got to Al-Ahsa region where the disease has appeared and is starting to spread. They bear the responsibility for this,” he said.

The specialist suggested that the reality seems to be withheld from the domestic public opinion, and the public does not know if the ministry has detailed information about the spread of the virus and refuses to disclose it, or whether they have not reached any conclusion. He said the Ministry of Health looks at research centers in Saudi universities as competitors when the relationship with research centers at universities should be a complementary relationship, not competitive.

He added that MoH indeed prefers to discover the scientific research on diseases via universities abroad rather than Saudi universities, although there are a number of Saudi universities that enjoy a huge potential and have reference laboratories recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO).

However, the Ministry of Health refuses to cooperate with them because they perceive them as competitors in spite of their supportive work with the MoH, he said.

He said preventive measures taken by the Ministry of Health lacks transparency, with no announcement about where the spread of infection started and whether it originated in Al-Ahsa or came from abroad. He also noted that ministry did not give any scientific information or details about the reasons for the spread of the virus.

“Unfortunately there are no details and nothing was published except the number of cases and deaths. This is not enough. It does not allow us to investigate the causes of the disease.”

Today, he said, there are more than 30 cases, but there is no clear information about the source of the disease and we do not know the results of the investigations.

What’s prominent here is that the article is a translation of a piece from Al-Eqtisadiah newspaper. Both papers are owned by the Saudi Royal family and the fact that these opinions are now running in the local press doesn’t bode well for the Ministry of Health. There’s no name associated with the ‘specialist’ and no invitation to respond by the Ministry.

There’s a significant lack of information about the Coronavirus, and when there’s a lack of awareness about a public issue such as a suspected epidemic people will seek information from other sources, most especially social media. However, if a public body reveals too much information they will be open to criticism that they are creating an unnecessary panic. There’s an interesting take on this issue by one public health blog, the Avian Flu Diary, that I’m going to quote below (do read the article in full if you have time).

We may simply be seeing a public relations backfire created as a direct, and 100% foreseeable, consequence of an overly secretive Saudi risk communications policy.

If there’s one thing you can count on in a crisis, it’s that rumors and speculation will rush in to fill any information void.

The other possibility is that this outbreak is somehow substantially worse than we are being told. But if that’s true, it seems unlikely that they could keep it hidden for very long.

Which puts us in a watchful waiting mode, looking for any indication – one way or the other – of how this outbreak is playing out.

It’s hard to see how this case has brought to light any positives for any of the parties involved. However, if there’s anything to be learned my hope is that the Ministry hires a public affairs agency that is specialized in such crisis communications, as this issue has the capacity to become much bigger and at a pace that few communications people would be able to handle. Remember SARS anyone?

One story, two different takes – How Saudi Gazette is reporting and Arab News isn’t

One story has dominated Saudi media for the past week, the tragedy of 13-year-old Reham Al-Hakami who contracted HIV through a mistaken blood transfusion at a government-run hospital in the south of the country (I’ll cover this story and the outcry it has caused in a blog-post soon).

However, reading the English-language press today is a confusing affair. If you pick up Saudi Gazette, you’ll find not one piece but two on Reham. The first is a news item about another Saudi woman who has contracted AIDS. The second is a scathing opinion piece from the paper’s Arabic-language sister publication Okaz written by columnist Khaled Al-Sulaiman.

The column, which was first published in the Arabic-language daily Okaz, was rerun in Saudi Gazette

The column, which was first published in the Arabic-language daily Okaz, was rerun in Saudi Gazette

And then there’s the main piece on the Ministry of Health in Arab News, which focuses on a letter from the King thanking “the Health Minister Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah and for obtaining certificates from the US-based Joint Commission International (JCI) for 15 medical facilities and accreditation from the Central Board of Accreditation for Healthcare Institutions (CBAHI) for 50 hospitals over the past 12 months.”

And here is the main piece on the Ministry of Health from Arab News. There's a second article covered, which is also not related to Reham

And here is the main piece on the Ministry of Health from Arab News. There’s a second article covered, which is also not related to Reham

I know which newspaper I’d rather be reading today. The team at Saudi Gazette and its owners should be praised for their editorial integrity and coverage of the issue.

Incidentally, Arab News is known as the Green Truth owing to the colour of its front and back pages and the quality of its copy. While the colour print hasn’t changed there’s been a noticeable shift in editorial since Khaled Al Maeena left at the end of 2011. During those two years Arab News has had two editors-in-chief (Abdulwahab Al-Faiz and now Mohammed Fahad Al-Harthi) and has lost staff to Saudi Gazette. I for one hope that Arab News receives the investment and political backing from its owner SRMG that the newspaper needs to compete editorially with Saudi Gazette.