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ANZSOG brings China, Australia and Aotearoa-New Zealand together to share responses to COVID-19

10 February 2021

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The following article is a summary of the ANZSOG and China’s Central Party School Dialogue: Public administration reflections on the COVID-19 response in China, Aotearoa-New Zealand and Australia.

ANZSOG and the Central Party School share an interest in providing quality training and education to build the capacities of the public officials of Australia, New Zealand and China. This dialogue, supported by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, was held in October 2020 to bring together expertise from the three countries and compare responses to COVID-19. A full list of participants is available here. Papers by Barbara Allen and Professor Allan McConnell which ANZSOG commissioned for the Dialogue are also available.

ANZSOG and the Central Party School are exploring the possibility of further dialogues on economic and social issues relevant to all three jurisdictions.

Australia, Aotearoa-New Zealand and China have taken different approaches to combatting COVID-19, but all three countries are recognised as being among those who have managed to get the spread of the virus under control and begin rebuilding their economies.

As part of ANZSOG’s commitment to sharing knowledge across the region, we brought together academics and practitioners from Australia, Aotearoa-New Zealand and China for a dialogue in late 2020 to discuss the similarities and differences in the three nations responses to COVID-19.

Despite the political and cultural differences between the three nations, the dialogue revealed similarities in the use of expert advice and communications to limit the spread of the pandemic.

The dialogue was a chance for participants to hear first-hand from other jurisdictions and exchange views on respective responses.

The dialogue was co-convened by ANZSOG’s Deputy Dean (Research) Professor Ariadne Vromen and Professor Gong Weibin, Director, Social and Ecological Civilisation Department, Central Party School.

Professor Vromen said that she had personally learned a lot from the speakers, in particular how China viewed COVID-19 as a ‘black swan event, but their rapid response helped them to a successful outcome.

“Australia, China and New Zealand exhibited three different pathways to success, each premised on rapid decision-making, well organised health systems, public confidence in government and a commitment at the community level to act collectively and responsibly,” she said

The role of evidence-based policy

To commence the dialogue, Sydney University’s Professor of Public Policy, Alan McConnell, spoke about the role of evidence in policy-making, and its broadly successful interaction with politics and governance in Australia.

“Often the language of policy-makers is that we listen to the science, we listen to the experts but the reality is much more complex than that. Western-style democracies have turned to evidence-based policy making in the last 20 years, and this has helped to give the appearance of depoliticising decisions, even although decisions are ultimately political judgements” he said.

“It is complicated because we are gathering information about the virus in real time, about transmission rates and what works and what doesn’t. COVID-19 crosses boundaries, and requires expertise from a range of people, from public health epidemiologists, lawyers, psychologists, business analysts dealing with supply chains, to farmers.”

“Expertise is scattered and evidence does not always point in one direction. Governments have to interpret different advice.

“In Australia there has been agreement that COVID presents a major threat to livelihoods, the economy etc, and broad agreement on what Australia should do, although people disagree on some of the timing and fine details.”

Professor Li Xuefeng, Doctoral Supervisor and Chief Expert, Central Party School, spoke about the role of expert advice on policy decision making in China’s response. He said his personal experience showed this had mainly been achieved through a partnership and co-operation mechanism between experts and officials.

“In China we faced a very hard battle. We had no prior preparation or experience but in the end the results have been quite good,” he said.

“China took about a month to curb the spread, and two months to get local cases to single digits, and in three months protected the city of Wuhan and Hubei province. During some very critical points, experts played a very important role.

“Expert teams were on the front line in Hubei province and together with the central guiding group they were working with the central guiding group. Our frontline expert group can freely raise any advice and communicate with those leaders at the front line directly.

“What’s the reason for Chinese experts being so effective? We had very clear direction and guidelines from central government – that we need to scientifically tackle the problem. The experts worked very clearly with the decision-making group. Our decision making group respected experts and respected knowledge. When we saw new issues arise from implementation, we went deeper and perfected those decisions.”

Fran Thorn, a consultant to governments across Australia, said that similar responses had been implemented in the three countries, and that all three took the position that health had been the most important thing, and from that factor had built a high level of trust.

“Governments listened to experts and moved to deal with the economic fears by giving support to those losing employment.

“By building trust, governments were able to put in place strategies that would have been impossible, such as closing borders and restrictions on movement. By and large these have been accepted by the population, because governments have communicated a lot.”

New Zealand’s integrated response and the role of communication

New Zealand aimed for, and achieved, full eradication of COVID-19 by sealing its borders and imposing a tight lockdown on its population. The New Zealand government was able to retain high levels of public trust and support throughout.

CEO of New Zealand Kindergartens, and former executive director, Office of the Director General of Health, Jill Bond said that New Zealand had become pretty experienced at national responses from events such the Cave Creek and Pike River disasters, Canterbury earthquakes, and the Christchurch mosque shooting.

“This outbreak demonstrates the power of communication. Communication has been honest, focused, repetitive and impactful. When the Prime Minister talks to us about the nation, about the power of the team, that we are all in this together – this has led to high levels of compliance to what the government was asking us to do,” she said.

“As a nation we were very aware of the consequences of non-compliance. We understood the four levels to support the country around COVID-19, we understood the requirements for testing and contact tracing.

“From a practitioner point-of-view it felt like a Whole-of-Government response. While health was the lead agency, we were also focused on social wellbeing, and economic wellbeing. The government was particularly powerful around setting out the small steps- the short and medium term focus of what we needed to do”

She said that in terms of the overall response to COVID-19 the “hard work is about to start” as the initial response had “exposed the enormity of poverty and inequality across New Zealand”.

Sir Peter Gluckman, who was Chief Science Advisor to the New Zealand Prime Minister from 2009 to 2018, said that between 2013 and 2018 New Zealand had put in an enormous effort into reviewing its risk management approach.

“New Zealand developed its first national risk register, it reviewed its national security system and management of civic risk. It created the role of Chief Science Advisor to the PM, and science advisers in of the major government departments including health. The expectation was that they would assist in reaching out to experts as needed in crises.”

He said that during lockdown, enabling New Zealand’s social service focused NGOs to provide relief quickly and act without bureaucratic impediments, had been a key factor in the response.

“NGOs certainly appreciated the removal of government bureaucracies about where monies should be spent, decision were able to be made in 9-12 hours, not 9-12 months.

“Perhaps the biggest issue New Zealand was not equipped to handle was the digital divide, the people with limited or no access to the internet, i.e those trying to do online learning via a cellphone.”

Barbara Allen, Senior Lecturer in Public Management at the School of Government, Victoria University of Wellington, said that from the New Zealand experience the ‘alert system’ – the four-level system that helps people understand the level of risk and the restrictions that must be followed at any given time – was an excellent framework for the future, and as a response it had worked well.

She said there had been potential issues around the Māori community, where there was not a lot of prevention in place, but that these communities had adapted well.

“It was very interesting to look at the responses of Māori groups, including cultural adaptation and use of community networks and communication,” she said.

“We need to learn and prepare for the next emergency. This includes from the information gathered at the grassroots.”

Wuhan v Wenzhou: learning from diverse outcomes

In one of the most revealing sections of the dialogue, Professor Hu Yinglian, Social and Ecological Civilization Teaching and Research Department, Central Party School offered a comparison of lockdowns in Wuhan (the epicentre of the virus in Hubei province) and Wenzhou, a city considered at high risk of an outbreak at the early stage.

“Of these two cities both are of similar sizes and city-level GDPs, one (Wuhan) was hit tremendously hard early on. Wenzhou was a prefecture level city that was recognised as one that had performed outstandingly in the fight against COVID-19. The two are linked by internal migration, which made Wenzhou the possible second city for the pandemic.”

He continued his presentation by saying that China has a different understanding of community to the west – much more based on a fixed geographical location, and fixed residents.

“In the west it is more a ‘collection of individuals’ not a geographical boundary. In China we see ‘community action’ as unified community action.”

He said he used a concept of “community action” which found that containment policy by local government combined with collaborative community action led to high performance of prevention and control of the pandemic.

“If we see that the policy is not in line or not supported by community action the outcome would be a relatively low performance in disease control,” he said.

“At the very beginning of pandemic, community in Wuhan was given a platform to implement the full functions of government, including lockdowns, stockpiling and isolation. But this led to inefficiencies as they did not have the competence and professional capability to implement policy – for example many people got COVID from family members because they had not been professionally isolated. Because the disease was an ‘unknown unknown’ at that time, so we needed time to understand it.

“In Wenzhou the higher authorities worked with the city in synergy and the outcome was very good.”

Professor LI Xuefeng spoke about the use of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) alongside Western medicine in combatting COVID-19.

“Of people with severe cases, 90 per cent have had some form of traditional Chinese medicine, as have over 90 per cent of minor cases – we don’t force people, but it is offered.

“In terms of traditional Chinese medicine we’ve been collecting evidence based on a few months of people using it, and the effectiveness rate was over 90%.”

Role of the private sector

While the pandemic has seen governments across the world take the lead, the private sector has taken a key role in response to the crisis.

Professor Gong spoke of the role of the private sector in China and the ability of private companies to be flexible and shift to COVID-related roles – and the role of government in providing financing and support, such as rent delays, to businesses.

“We have a major automobile company who used their logistics chain to ask their suppliers and clients downstream to resume production as soon as possible and these major businesses led the struggle in this area,” he said.

Many Australian companies have also adapted quickly to the pandemic, and have been able to shift staff into working-from-home, or adapting their businesses to reduce face-to-face contact. Private companies which have lost significant amounts of revenue have also been supported by the Australian government to retain staff.

Laureate Professor Emeritus Cheryl Saunders AO, from the Melbourne University Law School, said that despite these successes, she felt the private sector could have taken more initiative in Australia, particularly around opening up the economy safely.

“For the private sector to open up, there needs to be some protocols they need set up – around sick leave and people coming to work sick. It wouldn’t be hard for the private sector to come up with a set of best practice guidelines and it’s more likely to be successful than expecting government to be the only one responding,” she said.

“The ongoing tension between health and the private sector does need to be worked through. New pressures will come up, and it’s important that new public and private undertakings emerge.”

Learning for the future

While all three countries have been successful so far in containing COVID-19, the pandemic highlighted challenges in governance and crisis management, and the Dialogue looked at what could be learned for the future.

Professor Sara Bice, Director, Institute for Infrastructure in Society at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, said that the crisis called for new styles of leadership.

“This is a transboundary crisis, that really speaks to the need for new leadership, to more resilient and expansive styles of leadership, that can admit failure and respond, that can leverage networks and be change ready. We need to move beyond the two ‘Rs’ readiness and regulation,” she said.

She said governments in Australia and New Zealand needed to ensure they could deal with ‘pandemic fatigue’ and maintain the trust needed to keep strong restrictions.

“How does the government maintain social licence when citizens are less compliant? How do we deal with pandemic fatigue? How do we ensure governments maintain a social licence to take protective measures to protect public health?”

Ben Hubbard, Distinguished Visiting Scholar, Melbourne School of Government, and former CEO to the Victoria Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority, said that based on previous experiences with disasters, as a community moved to a recovery phase political unity began to slowly decline.

He said that in Australia the use of community-based organisations in Indigenous communities had helped build trust and engagement – and been part of the reason why there were low numbers of cases among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

He said that in Victoria, different areas would require different community-based responses, and levels of economic support, because of their different economic profiles and reliance on international tourism.

In concluding the Dialogue, Professor McConnell said that it had been very interesting to see the three different systems, and different institutional arrangements involved in the common fight against COVID-19.

“There is one thing in common, which is that crisis management has two types of challenges: first is managing the threat, such as the virus and its spill over effects on the economy; second is managing people’s fears and anxieties – which makes trust and responsibility crucial.”

“The most difficult challenge is managing the politics, getting people to accept lockdowns etc. We have seen three countries with different routes to success, but three commonalities in terms of trust and responsibility.”

Professor Gong praised the dialogue saying that: “this morning I have listened to speakers from all three nations. There are a lot of commonalities- all three countries value human life and expert opinions, we value the synergy between government officials and experts”.

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