Covid-19 has highlighted stark differences in crisis management approaches and responses by different states. These differences are determined by the prevalent legal and governmental traditions found in each country. As Assoc. Prof. Pham Duy Nghia argues, this healthcare disaster once again emphasizes the importance of public leadership and governance: despite different growth approaches adopted by each country, effective crisis management requires a responsible elite group and a competent executive government backed by civillian trust and support.
Over 400 participants watched and discussed with Associate Professor Pham Duy Nghia, MPP Director at Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management, on the topic: “Covid-19 pandemic: An analysis from legal and public governance”. This is the second seminar in the online policy series hosted by FSPPM faculty during this April and May to discuss the lastest developments of this global epidemic from different perspectives.
As a leading public policy research and education institution in Vietnam, FSPPPM faculty has been observing the Covid-19 pandemic closely to come up with timely and authoritative analyses to support their policy recommendations.
Two divided responses: East vs. West
Reviewing the global responses to Covid-19 in the last three months, the dominant strategy adopted by most countries has been “flattening the curve” and mobilizing resources to contain the outbreak. However, some discernible differences emerged in how each country responded.
In late January, when the pandemic broke out in Wuhan and surrounding areas forcing China to issue massive lockdown procedures in some provinces, epidemiologists warned the possibility of a global spread. While Asian countries with vivid memories of the disatrous SARS in 2003 were fully aware of the dangerous consequences of a possible outbreak, Western countries showed a somewhat indifferent attitude. President Donald Trump’s tweet in February argued that Covid-19 was not as dangerous as seasonal flu, a disease which kills thousands of Americans every year. Some European governments, for instance the U.K. and Netherlands, advocated for a so-called “herd immunity”, tolerating the infection rate of 60% to create community-wide protection. It was not until March when the pandemic spiralled out of many government’s control, with infected cases and mortality rapidly escalating, that these countries began to establish more suppressive measures.
Even when the threats of an epidemic call for pressing state intervention, measures adopted by different nations varied in extent and effectiveness between Eastern and Western states, according to Professor Duy Nghia. More aggressive measures were typically adopted by many East Asian countries such as China, Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, Vietnam, and more, curbing the spread. Infected areas established lockdown, suspicious cases were quarantined, social gathering were limited, schools were closed and masks were made compulsory in public. Some countries even comtemplated using controversial measures such as various digital tracking apps. Meanwhile, European countries’ only recommendation to citizens was t practise social distancing. Masks in public were also not compulsory. It was not until March when infection cases overwhelmed the healthcare capacity in some countries that governments did resort to national bans on public events.
So far, it can be confirmed that early efforts to curb the transmission of Covid-19 diseases in Asian countries have been more effective considering the lower rate of infection and mortality. Among success stories, Vietnam stands out, given the constraints in national resources and healthcare system, for maintaining infected cases under 300 with a record of 0 registered deaths.
On the contrary, the pandemic is taking a severe toll on more developed and wealthier nations in U.S. and Europe with infection numbers accelerating daily with no clear signs of these countries passing infection peaks.
A lesson in crisis management
From the fight against Covid-19, according to Assoc. Prof. Pham Duy Nghia, there are many important implications on how to develop a competent and responsive government.
“During a crisis, whether a state is democratic or authoritarian matters little; the ability to correctly identify and respond to threats to the nation is much more important.” How one government recognizes threats predisposes their attitudes to counter these threats. On the other hand, European and U.S. states missed the first precious weeks or even months to act, while drastic measures during later stages are not as efficient to recover control of the situation.
Even when the government is fully aware of the dangers, the decision to intervene or not, and at what extent, are affected by careful considerations of trade-offs between costs and benefits, between economic growth or public health. Western countries were hesitant to act against the outbreak, too unwilling to forgo economic growth, and missed the golden opportunity to effectively contain the disease.
After priorities are determined, available resources should then be mobilized to counter against the pandemic. That said, resources should be allocated to the healthcare sector to counter against the transmission. Prof. Nghia noted that transparency contributes to the effectiveness of counter measures. The success of Vietnam and other countries imply that constant updates on the state of the pandemic can help stakeholders make rational decisions, contributing to strengthen social trust and consensus.
To manage a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, empowerment and trust to authoritative experts should be prioritized. Professor Nghia cited the terrible consequences when populist leaders ignore the warning of healthcare experts to please some voter groups. For example, the Brazilian president insisted that Covid-19 is just inflated fears and threatened to fire the Brazilian minister of health. The president himself also joined anti-lockdown protests. To this day, Brazil remains the country most devastated by Covid-19 in South America with 45,000 infected cases and 3000 reported deaths. Likewise, the UK, Italy and some other countries are regretful for their populist decisions in early stages, as leaders decided to please voters rather than base their decisions on evidence-based analyses from experts.
Pathways to a competent government and responsible leaders
From those observations, Dr. Pham Duy Nghia argued that “an advanced market economy without a competent government and responsible leaders can lead a nation to disaster just as well when confronted with emergencies like Covid-19 pandemic.” Advantages of the market economy, such as property rights, freedom of enterprise, freedom of contract are undeniable. However, differences in Eastern and Western historical and cultural traditions leads to various approaches to build a competent government and responsible leadership.
The speaker explained that Asian cultures with great emphasis on community values can tolerate partriachal governments and place greater trust in governmental institutions. As a result, citizens are more tolerant of governmental measures restricting their freedom of movement or enteprise to mitigate the outbreak. Some are willing to give out their personal information in “tracking smartphone apps” to circumvent the spread of the disease and protect public health. These governmental and cultural traditions reinforce public support for Asian states’ containment decisions. Civilian support for the government’s policies laid the foundation for Vietnam’s success in mitigating the disease. Dr. Nghia cited the survey of Dalia GMbH stating that 62% of respondents believed the intervention measures of the Vietnamese government were appropriate, the highest consensus among 46 nations in the survey.
The Covid-19 pandemic also demonstrated the fact that policies are crafted by elite groups, although all governments claim to be by the people and for the people. Therefore, a selfish elite group seeking to secure their own interests instead of being accountable to public interests can push one nation to disaster.
One clear example is the lack of transparency observed in some responses to the situation that saught to protect the interests of ruling groups, even in democratic societies. The Japanese government was denounced for their confusing and obscured pandemic statistics, as well as their late declaration of the state of emergency. The Abe administration is currently criticized for deliberately hiding the reality of the pandemic to keep the Olympics 2020 from being cancelled. On the other hand, U.S. journalists found out that advisor Peter Navarro had submitted two policy memos (dated 29th January 2020 and 23rd Fenruary 2020) warning the dangers of Covid-19, both of which were ignored by Trump offices, fearing that drastic measures may send the U.S. through an economic downturn, diminishing Trump’s chances to be re-elected to the White House. The consequences of turning a blind eye to these early warnings have had severe and deadly consequences: the U.S. topped the world with the highest number of infected cases, and deaths.
Confidence in Vietnamese legal traditions
With early achievements in the fight against corona virus, Dr. Pham Duy Nghia encouraged Vietnam’s confidence in its legal traditions, and observed that legal identity and public governance in Vietnam are shaped by multiple factors, including political commitments, the legitimacy of ruling groups in Vietnam, international commitments, the code of conduct in the private sector, civil society and domestic communities, and the soft power of global multinational corporations. Besides, similarly to other Asian countries, the cultural, religious beliefs of Vietnamese people also remain influential factors. In other words, “while law assumes a supreme position in some countries, in Vietnam law is an additional resource when other social responses fail to achieve their desired outcomes.” This explains why Vietnam can quicky contain the pandemic with resource contraints, since pre-existing community groups and behaviours boost the quick implementation of pandemic measures.
“The question now is after the crisis, how should Vietnam take advantage of these diversified resources to come up with policies backed by great public support?” asked the professor.
As a keen observer of legal reforms in Vietnam over 30 years, Dr. Pham Duy Nghia believes this question is increasingly important considering that Covid-19 is fundamentally changing the dynamics of globalization and international commitments, a primary factor motivating legal and institutional reforms in Vietnam.