A poster in Phu Quoc, Vietnam, tells residents that filing health declarations is their contribution to the fight against COVID-19.
A poster in Phu Quoc, Vietnam, tells residents that filing health declarations is their contribution to the fight against COVID-19.

Citizens around the globe mostly gave their respective governments a poor report card on their handling the coronavirus, according to a recent poll. China and Vietnam were the best-performing nations — though not for the same reasons — given their divergent experiences with the pandemic.
 
Only seven of 23 nations in a public opinion poll by Blackbox Research and Toluna scored at least 50 out of 100 on handling the virus, which has “dented western psyches” and expectations of national preparedness, Blackbox said.
 
China topped the list with a score of 86, followed by Vietnam with 77. All of the top 10 are in Asia, except the United Arab Emirates and New Zealand. In explaining Asia’s success compared with the west, Johns Hopkins professor Kent Calder has cited a mix of fast and experienced technical responses, as well as civil liberties restrictions.
 
What China and Vietnam both have in common is they started acting on COVID-19 before most others and had experience with past epidemics that afforded them technical and intellectual capacity. They also are one-party states that surveil and censor. They each earned different reputations, however, for transparency in the responses, so their citizens’ high approval ratings require different explanations.
 
While China and the U.S. are blaming each other for COVID-19, Vietnam has been treating patients early, testing and using contact tracing, restricting mobility and using data to make decisions.
 
“Vietnamese authorities have reacted immediately, decisively, and with a degree of severity,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute senior analyst Huong Le Thu wrote for the Council on Foreign Relations blog.
 
She said the country’s zero deaths and low infection rate “strengthened Vietnam’s international positioning and reputation, and boosted public confidence in the government.”
 
Kashif Ansari, CEO of IQI Global Group, a property consulting firm, called Vietnam a “safe haven” in the region.  
 
“It is no surprise that the Vietnamese feel their country has responded well,” he said of the public opinion poll.
 
Skeptics ask if Vietnam’s success is aided by underreporting of cases, a network of security officials, and limits on new and old media. But academics Trang Nguyen and Edmund Malesky argue that focusing on authoritarianism misses the Southeast Asian nation’s “steady improvements in health care, information access, and corruption control.”
 
They say Vietnam spent decades making local government more responsive and professional, which enabled coordination between central and provincial officials amid COVID-19. The government has taken steps to better transparency, for instance, by posting details of all virus cases online and explaining why it didn’t count one fatality from liver failure as a COVID-19 death.
 
“Vietnam’s online network of activists, while still critical of privacy violations and the lack of freedom of speech, has not raised the alarm on widespread fatalities or coverups,” Nguyen and Malesky wrote in a Brookings analysis. “Thus, while under-counting is possible, public disclosures open space for discussion and allow for corrections if needed.”  
 
Although Vietnam controls domestic newspapers and the internet, public opinion is based on greater access to information than is available in China. Beijing’s Great Firewall includes bans on Facebook, Google, and other sources of information that remain available in Vietnam. Unlike its smaller neighbor, China expelled major foreign newspapers in March amid the COVID-19 chaos. The restrictions decrease the odds of foreign criticism reaching Chinese citizens.
 
Of the public opinion survey, David Black, Blackbox founder, says, “The Chinese are exceptionally satisfied, which could be attributed to how they are already in their post-COVID-19 recovery phase.”  
 
As for nations that fared worse, he said, the poll shows “major cracks in self-belief across the western world.” Surveyed citizens in places like the U.S., France and Japan tended to say their leaders reacted too slowly or that they were surprised their governments weren’t prepared for a health crisis.  
 
Western nations can draw lessons from Asia, Calder said in an interview with his university’s news center, the Hub. Lessons include greater contingency planning for crises like the pandemic, possibly including strategic storage of medical supplies and simplified supply chains.  

 

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