I am going to write this piece with two things in mind, and the readers should remember it too. Firstly, there are lots of things happening in campus that I do not know, especially in terms of bureaucracy. Secondly, my opinions are just reflections based on my experience as someone who voluntarily chose to stay in campus through the 2020/2021 academic year. I had my own fair share of isolation, quarantine, and swab test as I had been staying in campus. This is my opinion on the question of whether IIUM should disclose the real figure of positive cases inside the campus.
As a member of this Union, it feels like it is my duty to firstly reflect on responses made by the Executive Officers of the Union. Prior to that, I should also address the fact that it is hard to verify whether these people are the Executive Officers of the IIUM Student Union. A fast check on the official website, Twitter and Instagram of this Union as of 16th July 2021 did not provide any poster or pictures of the current office bearer, their names and contact information. It might be my lack of ability to conduct decent research to verify who are the Executive Officers of the current tenure, but I humbly opined that the Executive Officers should make that information accessible to all. Otherwise, anyone can claim they are the Executive Officers, and the listeners will have a hard time verifying it.
The first thing that should be pointed out is the statement made by an officer from one of the offices in this Union. In response to the inquiry made by another member of this Union about the number of positive cases inside the campus, that officer boldly claims there are regulations stating the number of cases cannot be disclosed. A better explanation was done by another member whom I believe is not an Executive Officer of the Union, but a member of one of the offices. This brother considerately narrated the whole situation, but he also relied on the premise that it is outside the Union’s jurisdiction to disclose the exact figure of positive cases inside the campus.
These bold claims had triggered a demand by students to know what are the regulations that illustrated such gag order. One cannot claim there are laws saying this and that without providing the authorities stating so. As office bearers that are collectively responsible to the members of this Union, the words spoken need to be trustworthy for people to put their confidence with. And what really undermines confidence is when you claim something without backing it up with evidence, and it turns out not to be true. The current tenure still has a long way to go, and the Executive Officers should remember that the weight of their office give weight to their statement, so be mindful when they claim something.
As mentioned earlier, the real purpose of this article is to address the question whether IIUM should disclose the real figure of positive cases inside campus. The inevitable question that needs to be asked is why. Why do students want to know the exact figure so much? What will change if we do, and what will happen if we do not? Does knowing the exact figure can help in decreasing the cases? Does it affect our mental health, not knowing what is happening around us? I believe it is a matter of transparency.
Why does transparency matter?
What is so good about transparency? Are we an entitled generation that thinks we are entitled to know everything? Aren’t certain things being better to be left hidden to avoid panic within the society? If such things are true, the MOH will not have to go through the hassle to announce daily cases every day. However, studies have shown that the hesitancy of authority to share information in moments of crisis has left space for misinformation to spread as people search for answers.
A few days ago, IIUM made a statement on sharing fake news about COVID-19 and the penalty it brings. The university’s administration through OCAP had the audacity to remind students that such information should be verified if it did not come from IIUM Official Channels. While the reminder is true, that every information should be verified; the administration should not forget that such misinformation is due to the absence of authentic information. Darkness is the absence of light. Withholding information only causes misinformation. That is why transparency matters, especially in this pandemic.
Does knowing the figures change anything?
Knowing the exact figure will not change much. One and a half a year into this pandemic, most Malaysians no longer patiently sit in front of their television to know the daily cases. But not knowing the exact figure changes lots of things. Students have the mentality that since we have not been allowed to go outside for a long time, the risk of infection inside the campus is low. There might be few cases around out of nowhere, but things are still under control.
Suddenly, we were called to be quarantined as we are a close contact out of the blue. After we were released, another group of friends become the new cohort of close contact. One by one the people around us are called to be quarantined. Fear reigns. We start to think the cases inside the campus are high as the people around us are being taken away. Misinformation starts. A simple act of disclosing the exact numbers could have stopped the misinformation and make students warier of their surroundings.
Why should the administration release the exact figure?
The mechanism through which people come into contact with data will change the way they understand and interpret it. Official data released by MOH showed that Kluster Jalan Gombak 3 has 62 cases with 527 screening. If I refer to the data provided in my MySejahtera, 1 km radius from Mahallah Salahuddin reported 66 active cases in the last 14 days. 1 km radius from me could reach the neighbourhood beside IIUM. My friend from Mahallah Asiah who is 900m away from me has 68 cases in her MySejahtera and that could include the neighbouring neighbourhood from her side. The same goes for my friends from the male mahallahs that are closer to the IIUM border and the outside world. Students are only concerned about the number of cases inside the campus. Letting them be presented with the data through the application which also consists of cases outside campus is not helping them to determine the real situation. It will only instil uncertainty in things that might not be true.
Should the administration withhold the exact figure to avoid panic?
The truth is, we are going to live with this COVID-19. This vaccination process will not eradicate the virus, but simply turn this pandemic into an endemic. What is important is to make students understand the risk and what they can do to mitigate the risk. It means informing students about the scale of the outbreak inside the campus and the associated risk it carries. A different degree of caution should be taken when dealing with one or two cases, in contrast to a hundred cases. Disclosing the real facts will give students enough information that is consequential for us, and what can we do to mitigate the risk, particularly in changing behaviours. It is not about the numbers. It is about providing facts, real data so students can adapt to the situation and subconsciously consent to a stricter measure to control the situation inside the campus. Building trust between the administration and students is essential for the response.
The effect of disclosing real data to students’ mental health.
Malaysians, in general, are getting used to see the big number of cases, and yesterday (06/08/2021) it recorded an all-time high again. Disclosing the real data may cause anxiety to some, but hiding it causes more anxiety, as had been shown in the MySejahtera example above. Do such numbers really reflect the situation inside the campus? Or is it because of cases outside since Gombak is a red zone? Withholding information takes a greater toll on students’ mental wellbeing. Students should be entrusted to be treated like adults that deserve to know the real situation. This vacuum of information creates room for misinformation. The easiest way to fight fake news is to provide real honest data.
A matter of trust
Providing this information should not be a prolonged debate. It should not even be an issue. The administration needs students’ cooperation to tackle this pandemic. Students wish to help the administration to solve this issue. Sharing of information is vital to handle this problem. It should not be an issue that divides everyone further apart. Trust should be maintained, and each party should treat each other with respect. This university cannot exist only with the students. This university will serve no function if only the administration is here. The administration and students will have to walk side by side until the end.
While it will not take a genius to figure out Kluster Jalan 3 is Kluster IIUM, the practice of disclosing honest data should start now. This university should not wait for cases to rise and be declared as a cluster for the administration to disclose such information. Prevention could have been taken earlier if students are made aware of the situation. Even if there are only one case or ten cases, an alert should be given so precautionary measures can be taken.
Long gone are the days where students will follow everything they were told to do. Mutual cooperation is needed for this university to thrive further. As the great Professor Dumbledore once said, “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided. Dark times lie ahead of us and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right. It is important to fight and fight again, and keep fighting, for only then can evil be kept at bay though never quite eradicated.”
By: Hakim Razak, Staff Member, Union Development Department, Office of President, IIUMSU