After months of preparation, we had picked March 2, 2020, as our festive website launch date. Unfortunately, plans changed this past week: On Thursday news came out that an Italian student at IE University Segovia campus in Spain had contracted Covid-19. RAIA, albeit a completely independent organisation, was initially developed at IEU by some of its professors and students. Many of our readers come from this environment and many of our team still either teach or study there.
Despite having read about and discussed the virus as a global event, it still came as a shock to see it has an impact on someone we know, rather than as an abstract statistic. As a result, people in our direct surroundings are fully focused on that, and it would be odd to ignore this reality.
Fortunately, all of this also allows us to put our RAIA method to good use. We have little to no value to add with respect to medical information or analysis, as that is not our expertise. But we can certainly analyse the reaction of people to an event, the spread of the coronavirus, and thus provide insight into what leads to global patterns like the one we are currently witnessing. In particular, how our decision-making as a society is influenced by fear factors, personal interests, hypes and economic motives.
What makes government authorities take the measures they do?
What are the factors influencing people at the WHO and other such organisations?
What is the psychological impact among ordinary people who read about all of this in the media?
What happens if a case is discovered in your immediate surroundings, as happened to us this week?
And, for those of you who are sick and tired (no pun intended) of Covid-19, we haven’t forgotten about you: we will continue to produce plenty of content on all the other international decisions that impact our lives!
The leaders in the spotlight vs. the leaders behind the scenes
The main leader in the spotlight has been, of course, Chinese President Xi Jinping. After the coronavirus outbreak in China, the world got prepared to make the final judgment on Xi’s administration: is his country ready to be the new world leader and replace the US, or will the same situation that happened with SARS, 17 years ago, repeat itself? Is Xi’s autocratic regime as responsive and effective as some claim?
Overall, it is now clear that, in a country of 1.3 billion people, Xi has successfully taken control of the crisis. Both infection cases and deaths have been reduced. Plus, let’s keep in mind that widespread knowledge of the outbreak arose during the biggest human migration in the world (Chinese New Year). However, major criticism has been targeted at Xi, especially at the beginning, with accusations of secrecy and mismanagement. Is this criticism well-founded? If so, what were the reasons behind such mismanagement? In order to evaluate Xi’s administration of the crisis, it is necessary to understand who had the responsibility of managing Covid-19 since “Minute 0”. Looking at China’s political system can help: as one of the world’s biggest countries, China has a highly decentralized political system. Local officials are the ones in charge of day-to-day decisions until the situation gets politically sensitive for the Chinese Communist Party.
What were the local officials’ reactions?
The main local official involved during the coronavirus outbreak was Wuhan’s mayor, Zhou Xianwang. A few weeks after the coronavirus crisis became notorious, Xianwang publicly acknowledged on television that he had failed to respond in time to the outbreak. He even offered his resignation. Xianwang was definitely feeling the pressure coming down from the high echelons of the Communist Party.
This public move of self-criticism on behalf of the Chinese state shows that Xi’s administration wants to ensure its legitimacy among the population and the international observers (blaming it, of course, on local officials). More importantly, it shows that Xi’s strategies are very different from the China that the world had been used to (same old secrecy and avoiding showing weaknesses publicly). What isn’t old is the problems that Xi has been having with local officials and their mismanagement of localities’ scandals. Xianwang’s public self-criticism and protests from the local Wuhan population show that the local officials’ reaction to the crisis has failed to be effective from the start.
What explains this failed initial reaction?
China’s decentralization of decision-making is based on a punishment-reward system that incentivizes local officials to compete in achieving the best policy results. While this system has allowed for China’s effective and unprecedented growth, it has also led to the mismanagement of other crises, like the one we are living today. Officials don’t want to be punished, as it would affect their personal career, but also they want to outdo the other localities in order to achieve economic rewards.
Although Xianwang’s mismanagement was not deliberately aiming at worsening the crisis (an assumption that easily arises in panic situations), the fact that no official warning to the Party was given in time shows irresponsibility on his behalf. The international hysteria that such an announcement would create didn’t make it any easier for Xianwang and other officials, as economic repercussions could have arisen as a result (which they actually did, once the world found out).
Since the moment that upper levels of the Party got involved, Xi has ultimately done a good job in controlling the coronavirus outbreak (some might say too good of a job). However, if he wants to keep legitimacy in the long-term, both domestically and internationally, some reforms are needed. The decentralization system based on punishments and rewards needs to be updated in order to avoid similar mismanagement in Minute 0. During a crisis such as this one, effective initial reactions can make a difference: the world wouldn’t be (possibly) going into economic recession, and Xi’s international image wouldn’t be damaged.
Next time Xi might not be as lucky, especially given that he is now in the spotlight of media and other leaders (who might benefit from Xi’s fall). Regardless, before jumping into conclusions about Xi’s administration, it is necessary to understand that effective management doesn’t come down to one person.
The World Health Organisation
What’s the role of the WHO?
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has been right in the middle of the coronavirus outbreak – and rightly so; a seemingly pandemic outbreak calls for international attention and the WHO is as credible as an entity can get in such a situation. The Director-General of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has been in the headlines these past months as well. This is possibly the biggest challenge he has had to face ever since he took office in 2017. Amidst the chaos and the confusion, the WHO has been crucial in many ways.
The first reason, of course, is to understand the spread of the virus and collaborate with many affected countries, especially China, to curb the outbreak. As the number of cases outside China has surpassed those within the country, the crisis has become all the more ‘global’, hence increasing the necessity of intervention by an international organisation. After cases were found in Sub-Saharan Africa, the organisation has raised its global risk assessments to the highest level. The second reason has been that the number of stakeholders has increased. Covid-19 has not only affected the people but also the market and the credibility of the national governments. Controlling the outbreak now also determines the future of several countries’ economies as well as the national support towards governments. The third and equally important reason is to tackle misinformation that is fostering the manic chaos. The authority of the WHO has reached the next level. Newspapers and official authorities are using information given by the organisation as the ‘ultimate truth’.
What has been its reaction?
Initially, the coronavirus was limited to China, and therefore, so was the WHO’s role. Due to the lack of information provided by the Chinese government, the WHO did not predict the extent to which the virus would spread and it’s consequent impact. Experts had earlier stated that keeping calm was crucial. But the panic amongst people rose, and news outlets, as well as social media, exacerbated the situation. Facing pressure from the governments, the WHO had to take a more proactive stance. There have been official press releases on a regular basis and the WHO has been labelled as the most reliable source of information.
Following the outbreak, the organisation initiated the WHO-China Joint Mission which consisted of “of 25 national and international experts” from China, amongst several other states. The concise report offered a list of recommendations to China, as well as other countries. The scale of the outbreak has shown that international cooperation is critical and this will definitely be tested in the coming months. The organisation has also been working closely with countries to find a cure for the virus.
Another aspect that the WHO is tackling actively is the enormous amount of misinformation that is causing a commotion. In fact, Ghebreyesus officially stated that the “greatest enemy right now is not the virus itself. It’s fears, rumours and stigma”. The organisation has taken this mission very seriously and has gone as far as creating a ‘Tik-Tok’ account to publish videos regarding the virus while also using other social media outlets. The effectiveness of its reach is evident in that information about the virus from the organisation is the most searched on Google. Yet, this hasn’t managed to change the perceptions of people or reduce fear.
Why is this important?
This very panic has led to a stock market crash, one that eerily resembles that of the 2008 financial crisis. It is one thing that people stock up on masks and cancel their flights to Italy or China. But when the panic is reflected in the market, the magnitude of the outbreak can be evidently seen. As of 17th February 2020, global markets have incurred a loss of a whopping $ 7 trillion. And why does this matter? Ever since last year, claims of an impending economic crisis have been making the rounds. This virus has only aggravated the situation.
Another important aspect to remember is that a growing sentiment of nationalism worldwide has led to the questioning of international organisations. If the WHO does not prove itself effective in controlling a global outbreak such as the coronavirus, its relevance and credibility in the international sphere further diminish. If national governments succeed in containing the outbreak and fear more efficiently than the organisation, their importance will rise. In fact, the very idea of globalisation could also come under criticism. It has been conjectured that the vast network of countries increases the susceptibility to such outbreaks. Closing borders has become one of the many solutions put forth by national governments. In the long run, this may not fare well when it comes to international cooperation.
Another aspect that will definitely be tested is the WHO’s power to influence China and Iran to cooperate in these circumstances. With the Joint Mission, it seems that China has been more willing to work together to address the problem. But the question of whether this effort will persist remains to be answered.
On observing the events of the past few weeks, it is obvious that the WHO will be in the centre of it all until the crisis, hopefully, ceases. Amidst all the conspiracy theories and WhatsApp forwards, the world needs this sort of beacon of hope and truth – and the WHO has stepped right in for this role. The question now is: will the organisation be able to tackle this issue effectively? Up until now, the international community has recognised the WHO’s efforts in fighting the virus. But it is only a matter of time that fear peaks while governments use this as a tactic to garner public support. Here, time has become the most important commodity and the organisation is incessantly fighting against it to reach its mission of securing public health.
Media, Experts and People
The triangle between journalists, experts and media readership is one of the most important factors in determining public opinion on issues. All three have slightly different interests in that three-way, and the interaction between them determines in large part how society and responsive politicians react. In the current Corona situation, the reactions have followed patterns similar to those of other global events that are perceived as highly threatening in the short-term.
How has the media reacted?
Journalists have focused on the dramatic nature of the spread, with 85 thousand (at the time of writing) people infected and heat maps showing the global spread. What has remained underreported is the dramatic consequences of our global reaction, such as significant economic downturn and individuals suffering as “collateral damage”. For example, the stock market decline is reported as “due to the coronavirus”, as if it is an unavoidable force of nature causing economic downturn, rather than clear choices made by society in how to respond.
The experts invited by media follow a similar pattern: the potential dangers are highlighted, with those who warn of impending doom getting significantly more space than those who caution against an overreaction. A frontpage article headline from the Guardian website on Sunday reads: “Epidemics expert Jonathan Quick: ‘The worst-case scenario for coronavirus is likely’”. The article refers to a simulation from years ago in which 33 million people got infected within six months.
What explains this reaction?
There are multiple reasons for this emphasis on (potential for) disaster. Firstly, journalists get caught in hypes more than anyone else. They themselves are right inside of the news bubble and large global events are professionally exciting, even when they are also potentially life-threatening. They become convinced that every new major event is huge, even if we have countless previous cases where they overreacted already.
Secondly, readers of their stories tend to embrace such fear and excitement. Impending doom sells papers and ad clicks. We, consumers of media, have an emotional reaction that draws us to news updates and allows us to balance between being spectators and potential victims.
Thirdly, there is a genuine belief that it is better to overreact and turn out to be wrong than to react in line with reasonable statistical analysis. The idea is that it is better to err on the safe side, lest the small chance of a new Spanish Flu situation (which killed around 50 million people worldwide) actually becomes real. This of course completely ignores the very high-cost society pays for overreacting (economic consequences, human suffering by being caught up in draconian measures, etc.), but that is also a known pattern: it is harder to recognise those complex secondary effects. And they certainly do not sell nearly as many newspapers.
Fourthly, there is significant pressure not to underestimate a situation like this. For both media and experts, the consequences of underselling a global threat are significant: it would lead to a damaged reputation and potentially even loss of their jobs. In the case of an unclear, scientifically still subjective, issue like Covid-19 is safer to emphasise the maximal risk. Stating that reasonably “it won’t be that bad” doesn’t provide any benefits: no one will remember you or care, no one likes a know-it-all who tells us that emotional reactions are way off the mark.
The interaction between media, experts and people and the bias towards impending doom has significant consequences. It pushes governments and other authorities further towards overreactions (something they are already prone to anyway). In the case of Covid-19, the result is many unnecessary victims and destabilising dynamics, not least with respect to the global economy and for example China’s internal political situation. Between “not doing anything” and “hyping the threat to the current global drama”, surely there is a middle ground: let health authorities do their thing and provide extra funding if necessary, wash your hands on a regular basis, and just continue with life.
Borderless Continental Europe:
Taking a more personal stand, we know that the students in the IE University Segovia campus have experience on their own with the coronavirus. Students in Factory have a lot to say about how the Spanish administration is dealing with the spread of the virus. However, from within RAIA Group, we can also provide some insight to how the authorities in other countries are handling the situation. We would expect that the members of the EU would have an organized and cooperative strategy by now. Nevertheless, governments and their respective sanitary administrations have obviously had difficulties preparing to treat the population. Furthermore, the outbreak in Italy has brought to light the negative consequences of the Schengen Agreement: free movement of people during a pandemic might not be the best measure to contain it. Does this mean that Europe should have closed its borders with Italy? If they want to avoid Quitaly and the Italian economy to survive, keeping Schengen in place was definitely the best decision to take.
What is like to get sick in Europe during the Covid-19 crisis:
With the previously mentioned free movement of people come several rights that are provided to all EU citizens. One of them is the right to health care when owning a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). Thanks to the EHIC, many students in Europe, including one of our members, Elvira, have visited European hospitals these past weeks. Elvira, who is doing her exchange in France, has experienced that the system does not work as well as we would wish. Even though we must not forget that seasonal flu is running around, the wiser thing to do if you are sick is to seek medical attention and expect to be tested, since the Covid-19 and the flu symptoms are truly similar.
As a result, she was deeply surprised when the professionals at a hospital in Poland sent her home after a small check-up where they did not even measure her fever. Students spend high amounts of their time in crowded places, where a lot of people from many countries gather (especially if you are in Erasmus or attend an international school). Erasmus students are continuously travelling, so when they return back from holidays or from one of the 100 trips they have done during the semester, it is really difficult for them to know the nationality of every person they shared space with. Thus, when Elvira returned to France and went to the hospital there, she was even more surprised when the doctors let her go after only asking if she “had been in contact with any Italian or Chinese citizens” or if there was “anyone with fever in the plane”. A third visit to the hospital and a small conversation with the doctors led her to two conclusions: firstly, professionals in less metropolitan areas have not received clear instructions about how to manage possible cases (or proper information about the virus); and secondly, at least up to last week, tests were scarce.
This clearly demonstrates that European leaders did not have an established policy of containment, and their statements addressing the population were not backed up by an organized health care plan for the short-term, even though the virus had been travelling throughout Asia for weeks.
Schools in the UK are closing at the risk of student contagion; universities in France are setting a 14-day quarantine for those who have recently visited Italy or had contact with Italian or Chinese citizens; in Spain, they are monitoring their students “closely”… At the moment, it seems there is no one right/common policy. People will still travel: it is operationally impossible to avoid cross border contagion (mainly because it has already happened). When it comes to public opinion in Segovia, we find that it is highly divided: some students think that there has been an overreaction on campus, and others feel unsafe and believe that the measures taken are not enough.
Should students be worried? Definitely not. Mass hysteria has caused more damage to society than the virus itself. However, we advise you to be extremely careful when in contact with groups in risk, such as the elderly or people with severe health problems. It is important to follow the instructions of the authorities or organizations such as the WHO not because your life is in danger, but because someone else’s might be. This is not the time to look over your shoulder and judge the nationality of your classmates. Remember that most students are not living in their own country, and on many occasions, they are unable to have the support of their families or friends. If you know someone who is sick, is from one of the most affected nationalities or is somehow related to any of those two cases: please, do not make it harder on them. The most relevant step to take is to normalize the situation, and that will not happen for as long as people feed in panic and misinformation. As we have said, life goes on: take care of each other and enjoy.