By Lou Shenghua
Macau has had a few major public crises since its 1999 return to China, the most memorable being perhaps the Sars epidemic in 2002-2003 and, more recently, Typhoon Hato, in 2017. Looking at these from an objective viewpoint, it is instructive to see within them effective ways whereby the community can be galvanized to respond and remain resilient throughout and, especially, afterward.
It should go without saying that the emergence of a public crisis requires a joint response from both the government and members of society at large. What is perhaps overlooked sometimes is the key role played by community organizations.
First and foremost, such organizations are needed to provide professional assistance to the government’s leadership. Members come from all walks of life and various industries, and are usually represented by the elites of society. In Macau, they include a large number of professional associations, full of experts with high levels of specific knowledge and experience. Their insights are invaluable, as many may have had prior encounters of similar situations. Moreover, once the initial stage of the crisis has passed, their inputs during the recovery efforts are vital.
Take the health community as a prime example. Its members are highly trained, working in both the public and private sectors. Medical communities can be galvanized to not only ensure personnel are directed where they are the most effective, but can help to spread health and epidemic prevention knowledge to the public in a timely manner. To date in Macau, the medical community has been highly effective in this regard.
Indeed, it should be emphasized how important the rapid spread of accurate information is in any crisis, such as the current coronavirus outbreak. Industry associations have been extremely helpful in disseminating information about the virus through their extensive networks of contacts, using diverse communication methods and information channels. Vulnerable groups, in particular, are well served by such associations. For instance, it might not be well known that during the outbreak, the Cabinet’s five Secretaries held extensive meetings with various community representatives in addition to using the mass media to spread vital information about the outbreak. These representatives, in turn, spread the word about the need to avoid crowds, reduce group activities, consider delaying or canceling large-scale events, all while taking precautionary measures. A good example was how the government worked with the elderly-care community to spread knowledge of anti-epidemic measures, especially to those elderly living alone, elderly couples and those in need.
The wider community also has a vital role to play in integrating social resources. Government resources are always limited, and community organizations are an important force outside the government to raise material and human resources in response to public crises. Social organizations are effective in this regard, especially through their international contacts, to seek assistance and raise funds. Social charitable organizations and charitable foundations have been effective in this regard in Macau –not only in gathering resources, but distributing them, as well. For example, during the outbreak, at least 23 service points were set up under the Federation of Trade Unions and the Women’s Federation to assist the government in distributing masks to residents. At the same time, the Women’s Federation received 5,000 children’s masks from enthusiastic people, and directly distributed them free of charge at the Women’s Federation Family Service Center.
Volunteer services are at the heart of such community efforts. People who donate their time to a community cause are especially needed in rescue operations, where government workers cannot always respond in perfect time. People often take the initiative to join rescue teams to help victims, maintain public order and social order, and mitigate losses. This effectively alleviates the drain on public human resources during a crisis, and is conducive to restoring production and order after the disaster has been contained. This was most evident during Typhoon Hato in 2017, when Macau’s social organizations quickly mobilized volunteers to participate in disaster relief. They cleaned streets, transported garbage, and delivered water and meals to residents of buildings that had suffered power outages.
Perhaps least well understood is the importance of social organizations in helping to calm fears during a crisis, when “social psychology” can come under immense strain. Rumor-mongering that leads to panic-buying of food, medicine and daily necessities during crises is most effectively dealt with by acts of community self-awareness. It is difficult for the government to provide comprehensive psychological counseling on its own. With the help of volunteers and online platforms, community organizations can communicate real, credible information in a timely manner to the public and quell rumors. They can also provide spiritual support to affected people. A good example of this came amid the recent outbreak when the NLD think-tank called for strengthening efforts to monitor the mental health of vulnerable groups. They also did a good job in easing public panic by helping to open psychological counselling services via hotlines and online.
Post-disaster reconstruction is where community cohesiveness comes to the fore most prominently. Impact-assessment studies need to come from the ground up. Collecting information, assessing damages, and suggesting prioritization is vital for the government in planning how best to rebuild after a crisis. Without the input of community organizations, it is difficult to ensure substantial material assistance is provided to employees of companies or institutions affected by the crisis. At the same time, these organizations are providing human resources to actively participate in post-disaster production and resumption of services.
Altogether, Macau’s community organizations have done a sterling job amid the coronavirus outbreak, and their recognition is well deserved.
(Lou Shenghua is a Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Macao Polytechnic Institute.)