The Debate | Opinion

The Challenge of Grading Asia on COVID-19

Amid the flood of assessments, we should be mindful of the challenges and limitations inherent in evaluating national performance on the coronavirus.

Prashanth Parameswaran
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The Challenge of Grading Asia on COVID-19
Credit: Pixabay

Last week, a new study was released analyzing public sentiment on key national responses to the coronavirus outbreak. While the study contained some interesting observations with respect to the relative performance of Asian countries on COVID-19, it also serves as a reminder of the challenges and limitations in such assessments as well.

Periodic crises tend to produce waves of comparative assessments about how Asian countries are managing their affairs – with a recent case in point being regional perceptions of growing U.S.-China rivalry and major power relations more generally. COVID-19 is no different, with a flood of efforts to grade countries on their handling of the global coronavirus pandemic, including from think tanks, universities, and companies alike, in addition to The Diplomat’s own snapshot.

Last week, we saw another case in point with a study on public sentiment related to government responses. The Index of Global Crisis Perceptions study, released by Singapore social research agency Blackbox Research and global online panel specialist Toluna, measured public sentiment of citizens from 23 countries, the majority of which were in Asia, toward national COVID-19 crisis management efforts. It found that most of the countries fared rather poorly, with only China, Vietnam, India, Malaysia, New Zealand, Taiwan, and the UAE scoring at or above 50 out of a total score of 100.

The study is not without significance. While several assessments have examined either the impact of COVID-19 or metrics around country responses, the index constitutes a rarer effort thus far to probe public sentiment across several Asian countries in this specific way, following previous work released along these lines. Furthermore, the study also adopts a more comprehensive approach to public sentiment, probing aspects such as past expectations and current confidence levels as well as examining not just governments, but four performance indicators across society labeled national political leadership, corporate leadership, community, and media.

Nonetheless, the study is also a reminder of the broader challenges and limitations in grading Asia’s governments with respect to COVID-19. For one, snapshot studies related to COVID-19, as opposed to ongoing, regular updates, can quickly be overtaken by events, particularly given how the dynamics of the virus can shift thanks to a range of factors, including increases in testing and the emergence of new waves. The changing fortunes of Singapore in recent weeks despite the country’s continued vigilance are a case in point. For another, ranking countries tends to quickly evolve from an analytical exercise to a highly politicized process about the strengths and weaknesses of certain regime types or other factors behind perceived success or failure – as we have seen with the scrutiny over China’s number one ranking on the Index.

There are also more specific issues with public sentiment as a key metric in assessments such as this as well. Public sentiment itself can be a particularly fickle indicator in some cases, especially in countries where the dust has yet to settle yet on COVID-19 — because the virus has yet to make a true impact — or where governments have been seen as late responders — like Japan, which ranked quite poorly in this survey, relatively speaking. Public sentiment can also be less revealing in certain contexts given various factors at play, be it the rally-around-the-flag effect the coronavirus may cause, which can reinforce polarization on populist national leaders we have seen in countries such as India or the Philippines, or the suspected lack of openness in countries such as China about the pandemic itself.

Of course, this is not to dismiss public sentiment as one of several useful indicators in assessing country responses, or the utility of continuing to monitor how Asian states are doing with respect to COVID-19 more generally. Aggregate national sentiment can be paired with other metrics, including sentiment at a more local level or the popularity of individual figures, in order to uncover more granular realities such as the performance of competent technocrats in government or at the state or provincial levels we see in Malaysia or Japan. And more regular, periodic reports that aggregate various indicators – including a previous study Blackbox and Toluna released back in February – can give us a sense of how baseline figures may change over time in line with the dynamics of the virus, and also help identify gaps between perceptions and realities, such as that between how countries are performing and how publics think they are doing.

But it does mean that we should avoid drawing too many conclusions too quickly from any single study. Though governments may be quick to laud or dismiss individual assessments of their country’s performance depending on their own interests, that should not detract from the analytical objective of getting an accurate, comprehensive sense of how nations are doing and what we can learn from them and from each other to better manage this global pandemic and future challenges like it further down the line.