As the COVID-19 epidemic wanes in China, the global fight against the virus is far from over.
China’s international reputation has taken a battering, with issues arising about transparency and handling of the virus, as well as faulty medical equipment and test kits that have since been sent to other countries.
Several Western governments have said China will face consequences for allowing the virus to spread, with some going as far as to demand compensation.
Moving forward, there are several things China could and should do to enhance its standing in the international community and remedy the unprecedented backlash the country is currently facing.
Numbers, numbers, numbers
Since the beginning of the outbreak, people, governments, and organizations around the world have been skeptical about the numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths coming out of China, particularly since they are significantly lower than those now seen in much less populated countries in the West.
The international community is especially skeptical about the numbers from Wuhan since the official death toll was revised up from 2,579 to 3,869 on April 17 with little explanation.
Putting aside the suspicious fact that the Wuhan figures have been revised up by exactly 50%, there are several legitimate reasons why the death toll may have been wrongly reported at first: some patients died at home without being treated, initial cases were missed or reporting was delayed, some medical institutions failed to connect with the comprehensive data network and did not report related information in time, overlapping data, and wrongly categorized fatalities, for example.
Whatever the reason, we dare to say China would be forgiven for not having had a handle on the numbers at the start.
They should just admit this understandable failing and do their best to calculate a realistic estimate.
Going forward, China should create a comprehensive timeline of the official and estimated numbers in different areas.
Even if that timeline highlights errors, a report of this nature could serve as a road map for other countries, and the international community would no doubt applaud the transparency.
Own up to mistakes
Using the timeline as a reference, it would be extremely beneficial from a public relations perspective if China were to open up about mistakes that were made and suggest ways the response could have been better handled, both during and after the peak of the virus.
China’s reluctance to admit mistakes is inviting widespread criticism and, when challenged, Beijing tends to take a very defensive stance.
Denial and defensiveness have been the go-to response to allegations of everything from “heavy-handed” lockdown measures to defective face masks and test kits that were sent abroad.
Although the government isn’t directly responsible for the faulty personal protective equipment (PPE), relevant authorities and regulatory bodies should have prevented this from happening in the first place.
In late April, following widespread complaints of defective PPE from governments around the world, China’s Ministry of Commerce tightened quality controls, increased customs inspections, and implemented new regulations for PPE suppliers while blacklisting those that failed to gain export certification.
Despite working hard to rectify the situation, the lack of initial measures to ensure the high-quality of PPE exports has already dealt a blow to China’s credibility.
People, organizations, and countries make mistakes all the time. We’re only human.
However, it’s often what we do after these mistakes that define us.
No-one could have predicted the pandemic would spread this fast, far, and wide.
China would do well to admit that it wasn’t adequately equipped to handle the outbreak at the beginning and that regulations and inspections were not initially sufficient to ensure exported PPE was up to scratch.
Don’t rise to the petty blame game
It’s hard not to quip back at someone who attacks you.
Recently China has been getting it from all sides and going tit-for-tat with countries and leaders around the world, especially US President Donald Trump.
After praising China at the start of the epidemic, the international community is now largely angry at China, with leaders keen to paint the government in an unfavorable light as they struggle with criticisms of their own responses at home.
But now is not the time to fight fire with fire.
As hard as it might be, China should be the “bigger country” in this war of words and either not respond at all to the criticisms or be more diplomatic in reply.
The last thing the world needs right now is two superpowers spreading unsubstantiated and, in some cases, utterly farfetched rumors about the origins of the virus — which only adds to the plethora of disinformation spreading online.
US President Donald Trump has accused the Wuhan Institute of Virology of causing the global pandemic by, either intentionally or accidentally, allowing the virus to leak from the lab.
In April, White House coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Anthony Fauci rejected the lab theory, while an analysis of the virus published in Nature Medicine in mid-March also stated: “We do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.” This, however, hasn’t stopped the theory being repeated by politicians and the public alike.
Meanwhile, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accused the US military of bringing the virus to Wuhan during last year’s Military World Games.
Again, there’s no evidence for this, but it’s a popular theory in China.
In addition, Trump, along with several other US politicians, have been using the terms “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan virus”, in turn, angering China into referring to the virus as “American”.
The juvenile back-and-forth was rightly seen as unhelpful and pointless by many around the world, sparking the motto “Viruses know no borders.”
Demonstrate plans for future epidemics
Thankfully, China seems to be taking a proactive approach to better prepare for future epidemics.
On May 1, a working group of the State Council released a circular requiring strengthened infection control in medical institutions and better implementation of epidemic prevention work.
A new draft law revision under consideration has also proposed strengthening the management of medical waste, especially that created during the handling of major infectious disease epidemics.
In addition to these, there are several things China could do to, not only prevent future outbreaks from starting but also ease the minds of people both domestically and abroad.
The Wildlife Protection Law of the People’s Republic of China was enacted in 1988 and successively amended in 2009, 2016, and 2018.
Still, many experts believe that the narrow and confusing definition of “wildlife” results in a lack of protection for animals that are either farmed or not considered exotic or endangered.
New policies should be implemented to better regulate wet markets and both the legal and illegal trading of wildlife.
China has issued a temporary ban on the trade and consumption of wildlife in the wake of the outbreak but would likely gain much-needed praise if it were to make the ban permanent and ensure it was properly and sustainably implemented.
In the past, similar bans, both in China and around the developing world, have faded away after the epidemic in question has blown over.
Bringing the current ban into permanent law would, for example, be in stark contrast to what happened after the 2003 SARS epidemic, when there was no change in legislation, and after Avian influenza (H7N9) epidemic of 2013, after which Guangzhou and some other cities introduced a ban on the sale of live birds in markets.
While the majority of China’s most developed cities now do not sell live birds in wet markets, the practice continues in ‘backstreet markets’ and some more rural locations.
With international travel inevitably set to resume in the future, the government should also take steps to ensure that citizens traveling abroad and people entering China are healthy.
While, admittedly, we still have a lot to learn about the nature of COVID-19, an action plan for the handling of travel in future epidemics should be developed so the country is poised to stamp out any new outbreak from the get-go.
Show commitment to the global community
After the United States cut funding to the WHO last month, it came as no surprise that China pledged an additional 30 million USD.
Whether or not this gives Xi’s government even more of its so-called influence on the global health agency is up for debate, but funding is funding, and increased financial support will dramatically help the WHO handle the current, and possibly future, pandemics.
Now would also be a great time for China to work closely with NGOs (despite their traditionally rocky relationship), foreign media (although that seems less likely in today’s political climate), international medical groups and organizations, and foreign governments.
China has already sent medical teams to several countries, but there’s plenty more that can be done.
For example, the United States has called for an investigation into the origins of the virus and wants to send a team to Wuhan.
China is opposed to this but could gain Brownie points if they were to give an international investigation the go-ahead, especially if the WHO and US inspectors were part of the delegation.
Not doing so just makes the government look like it has something to hide.
When, or if, this pandemic ends, the fallout for China will likely continue.
How bad that fallout is, however, could be mitigated if China responds in the right way to international criticism.
Ultimately, either China shifts its approach to communication and makes changes to its domestic policy that creates a safer environment for the entire world, or the world will start to shift away from China.
The latter could result in substantial economic and political losses for a country that is eager to win the hearts and minds of the world, but, at least at the moment, is struggling to do so.