[OPINION] WNTTAA: We need to talk about acronyms, the snag in PH’s virus response

Oliver Haynes

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[OPINION] WNTTAA: We need to talk about acronyms, the snag in PH’s virus response
'Throughout this whole crisis, the government’s poor use of language has merely alienated the masses. And it all started with some acronyms.'


In 2014, while volunteering with a civil society organization in Quezon City, I took a photo of a Powerpoint slide during one of my first meetings. (See below.)

In that moment, I recall being struck by the sheer number of acronyms on the slide without their expanded forms. And needless to say, my eyes glazed over, quietly hoping there wouldn’t be another list to memorize.

In hindsight, one might say that list wasn’t particularly excessive, and maybe I was being a touch dramatic. But over the succeeding months, my suspicions proved true: the country had an acronym fetish. 

Admittedly, I initially found the nation’s penchant for the language tool harmless. WIth each new law that passes typically comes a new government task force with a fresh acronym-moniker to boot. But now, it’s getting out of hand. It needs to stop. 

Throughout this whole crisis, the government’s poor use of language has merely alienated the masses. And it all started with some acronyms.

When the government decided to lock down Metro Manila nearly 3 months ago, instead of opting to disseminate quarantine measures and restrictions in terms of stages (1, 2, 3), they chose to embark on yet another acronym-smithing crusade.

We began with the ECQ (enhanced community quarantine), followed by the GCQ (general community quarantine), MECQ (modified enhanced community quarantine), and MGCQ (modified general community quarantine). Why is there such an obsession with naming each and every stage of the pandemic response? 

When you combine these with the already innumerable acronyms used for government agencies and programs, alongside the disparate restrictions in different parts of the country, I can’t blame anyone for becoming cross-eyed by the government’s messaging. (READ: [OPINION] An open letter to DOH’s communications team)

In comparison, countries like Australia chose to define lockdown restrictions in terms of stages (1, 2, 3). It was simple, and easy to digest. Eventually, they even distanced themselves from that approach; choosing to plainly communicate restrictions in terms of “easing” and “tightening.” The country’s states followed suit, and the approach will allow for slick transitions between lockdown phases if the country observes future waves of the virus in the months ahead. 

And there lies the conundrum spawned from this juvenile abbreviation obsession. If we see another surge in cases, will we simply wind back to a previous quarantine acronym, or will the government gift us a fresh humdinger to complicate matters further? As we’ve observed through this fast-moving crisis, no two moments are the same, and things change very quickly. Not to mention, the lessons learned which will inevitably inform future policy. What we called an ECQ two months ago may simply not be the case next week.

Any public relations practitioner can tell you that simple, straightforward, and consistent terminology is the hallmark of crisis communication in both the private and public sectors. But from the outset, the government’s messaging was anything but simple and straightforward. And the acronyms were just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. They merely set the tone for the government’s botched, exclusionary communications strategy.

Next came the feature-film-length press conferences held at ungodly hours, leaving any key messages all but dissolved amid wave after wave of ramblings and political rhetoric. Then they shut down one of the largest public broadcasters in the country – severing a vital news source for millions of Filipinos during a global health crisis. Now the Department of Health is facing allegations of disseminating dirty, unreliable data. (READ: 56,000 words on the virus: Duterte’s crisis messaging all bluster, little science)

There’s no telling how damaging each of these missteps has been, but the least the government can do is drop the jargon. 

Even with a vaccine, the World Health Organization has warned us that COVID-19 may never go away. That means, at some point, restrictions could tighten again in the Philippines. If that moment arrives, the government needs to dedicate less time to brainstorming fancy names for their lockdown measures, and focus more on mapping out a straightforward, inclusive communications strategy. 

Just give us the who, what, when, where, and why. Please, enough with the acronyms! – Rappler.com

Oliver Haynes is a freelance writer and photojournalist based between the Philippines and Hong Kong. His work is often influenced by a prior career working in communications for NGOs and housing rights groups. 

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