On a late Monday night, Rodrigo Duterte addressed the nation over television to announce the government’s largest-ever social protection program to help more than 18.5 million poor households, as the country entered the third week of an enhanced community quarantine.

But the broadcast was recorded earlier in the day and there was no explanation from the president’s communications office why the public had to wait for more than eight hours to watch an important announcement at a time the Republic was facing its biggest public health crisis.

This was not the first time the president’s announcement was broadcast late and when the people were about to go to bed. There was one instance when the president’s important message was aired past midnight.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to swiftly spread across communities, the people need timely, direct and crystal-clear information from government, particularly from the president, on the steps the government has taken to curb the rising cases of infection. Also, measures taken to mitigate the social and economic impact to prevent tens of thousands from losing their livelihoods and millions from going hungry in the coming weeks.

The Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) must stop its practice of delaying the public broadcast of an important message from the president during this extraordinary time. It must realize the people’s need at this time for accurate and fast information, to prevent confusion and chaos that could undermine public trust on government.

The government has been trying hard to contain the virus when the first signs of the outbreak were detected in early March. It imposed a community quarantine in the capital region on March 15, closing down schools, shops and public offices as well as suspending public transportation to restrict movements of people in an effort to slow down the transmission of the disease in communities.

Two days later, the president expanded the lockdown, loosely patterned after China’s Wuhan experience, throughout the main island of Luzon, home to about 60 percent of the country’s population. Local government units in other parts of the country imposed their own lockdowns as the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) spread to the regions.

The disease has sickened more than 2,000 people and killed close to 90 people in the Philippines, based on the health’s department records on Tuesday — the second highest in Southeast Asia, next to Malaysia.

Globally, more than 855,000 have been infected by the highly contagious respiratory disease and killed 42,000 people. Only about 20 percent of the sick have recovered.

The quarantine measures risked failure as people continued to move around, crowding wet markets and supermarkets as rumors swirled on social media on reports the restrictive measures would be extended because of rising Covid-19 cases.

The panic-buying was caused by false information that continued to spread because the government was too slow in providing proper communications to the public and putting to a stop a more deadly virus spread by trolls, which continue to polarize the society at a time when unity and solidarity are much needed by the country.

The public’s confidence was also affected by some early missteps by the inter-agency task force for the management of emerging infectious diseases, the super-body dealing with coronavirus pandemic. It announced confusing directives, like the closure of the country’s main airports in 72 hours. A day later, the task force lifted the restrictions.

It also appeared the quarantine measures announced by the inter-agency task force were not implemented to the letter on the ground as food and other essential cargoes were held up at checkpoints.

Health and other essential workers were also blocked at various borders, disrupting operations in some medical facilities and some businesses.

Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon Lopez, for instance, said there was a temporary shortage of a particular brand of bread when law enforcers did not allow workers of the food company to pass through a road block in Laguna.

Farm Secretary William Dar also received reports of vegetable and livestock deliveries to the capital region being blocked at checkpoints put up in the provinces, adding to pressures on supplies and prices.

Numerous communities have also complained to the interior and local government department of the uneven distribution of relief and food supplies and cash subsidies, even after Duterte announced a 200-billion-peso social protection program for poor households over a two-month period to make up for job losses and missed economic opportunities during the lockdown.

Some analysts fear the security solution to the public health crisis could explode into civil unrest if the quarantine measures are prolonged due to the large number of desperate and hungry residents forced to break into food shops. Many are complaining they will die of hunger, not from the virus that the government is trying to control.

Another communications problem emerged after the government introduced the virtual presser to respond to journalists and ordinary people’s queries on vague and sometimes contradicting government statements.

As the government gets the spotlight in the fight against the coronavirus, the media should be allowed greater access to information to help inform, educate and help form public opinion. Greater scrutiny of government actions should be made as the press steps up its watchdog role in society.

But the virtual presser limits and restricts journalists from challenging official statements, making it difficult to ask follow-up questions and focus discussions on specific issues and concerns.

The government can also filter and selectively answer questions, to block critical and tough queries. The government usually gives broad, general and motherhood statements and journalists are unable to ask officials to elaborate on their answers in a virtual presser.

The bigger problem for journalists was the PCOO’s accreditation policy. In this time of crisis when information is crucial, limiting access by requiring special quarantine passes defeats the purpose of journalism. Such imposition controls the flow of information, a violation of the constitutional guarantees on freedom of expression and of the press.

The PCOO is curtailing a free press but is not lifting a finger to stop propaganda and disinformation through the proliferation of false information in social media as many of the fake sites and accounts have been linked to people friendly to the administration.

Information is the most important commodity during crisis, and the government must not control it.