COVID-19 : Policy Watch website

The current global pandemic has certainly thrown many lives into disarray, with Governments around the world taking drastic measures in hopes of slowing down its spread. A new web resource maps the COVID response globally, as countries deal with the virus in different ways.  Bing Lou has the details. 

The worldwide response to COVID-19 has seen many countries forcing citizens indoors and moving most social interaction to digital screens. Some have placed emphasis on early containment, contact tracing and physical distancing.

Others have prioritised support for people who have lost jobs, and businesses who are unable to operate in the current climate.

All are seeking ways to ensure a continuous supply of medical equipment for front-line workers who are risking their lives every day to save others.

Understanding and comparing how countries have responded to the global pandemic was an idea deemed worthy of investigation by Wellingtonians Chris McIntyre, Ollie Neas, Asher Emanuel, and Racheal Reeves. So much so, they recently launched a new tool to do exactly that.

 COVID-19 Policy Watch tracks Government responses to the pandemic from around the world, by summarising their policies and measures (including economic, social and public health) and presenting them in an accessible and comparable way so that journalists, academics and the general public can compare how different countries are tackling COVID-19.

Given the fast, varied and ever-changing nature of Government responses, the platform has relied on more than 50 volunteers from around the globe to collate, analyse and update thousands of policies.

Their coverage of Asia includes China, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam, India and Pakistan,and the aim is to add new countries each week, with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and  more due to come online very shortly.

The international media continues to look closely at countries and economies across the Asia-Pacific for responses to COVID-19. Particularly the way Governments have undertaken comprehensive early containment and testing measures.

New Zealand recently moved out of its toughest level of social restrictions. Many have credited this to the Government’s tough stance early on in the pandemic.

Despite only having a few dozen cases, the Government closed its borders, enforced mandatory quarantine for all citizens arriving from overseas, shut down public spaces and non-essential businesses, and imposed a stringent lockdown, extensive testing and contact tracing. The current COVID-19 figures for Aotearoa speak for themselves.

Similarly, Taiwan’s response to the pandemic has been heralded as among the best globally.

 Even before the World Health Organisation declared a global pandemic, Taiwan had activated a national response unit across Government to tackle the possible spread of infection. 

They set restrictions on travel, imposed quarantine rules, ramped up mask production and brought in contact-tracing and testing. 

For a population of near 24 million, Taiwan has recorded just 438 cases and less than a dozen deaths so far. 

Although cases have recently surged in Singapore, it has also drawn global attention for its success in containing the early stages of the outbreak. 

It was one of the first countries to impose travel restrictions and testing of infected persons. 

It also quickly closed schools, non-essential businesses and handed out hefty punishments to those who breached quarantine rules. 

Few other countries battling the current outbreak can replicate these stats. 

In large part the success may be due to the willingness of a population that’s largely accepting of government measures.

Additionally, for many parts of Asia the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2003 continues to be a haunting memory, forcing Governments to be more prepared in establishing efficient and rapid responses against future pandemics.

In India, state governments took the lead on public health measures before the Prime Minister closed all rail services and announced a three week national lockdown on March 24th, when there were 519 cases. Today, there are more than 42,000 confirmed cases. 

In Pakistan, case numbers spiked as pilgrims returning from Iran began to test positive.

The federal government implemented a range of measures from border closures to a lockdown on public gatherings, and an economic stimulus package to protect workers and the agriculture and construction industries.

More recently, the government is moving away from a total lockdown strategy to an approach of testing, tracing and quarantining, hoping to usher in a return to normalcy.

 With COVID-19 Policy Watch up and running, the ability to understand and compare what Governments are doing to combat the global pandemic will be a useful tool.

Taipei2Taiwan's COVID-19 response is just one of dozens being monitored carefully by Policy Watch / photo supplied

 Q&A with the co-founders of COVID-19 Policy Watch

 How did you come up with the idea for COVID-19 Policy Watch?

 Our team has spent years building tools to help voters compare election policies, and we’ve refined an editorial method that makes it easy to learn about and compare complex policy issues. Re-tooling our site to cover the COVID-19 pandemic was an obvious choice during a time when a lot of us were at home wondering what we could do to help.

What’s the main purpose behind COVID-19 Policy Watch?

Our goal is to make it easy for policymakers, journalists, researchers and the general public to learn about and compare COVID-19 responses. Through our networks, we knew that a lot of bureaucrats were creating spreadsheets full of policies from around the world to inform their work – we thought we’d build a site that made it easy for them to find and compare policies from a range of countries.

 How many countries does the platform currently cover and how do you see it being used in the future?

We cover 22 countries in detail – thousands of words of policies summaries with full citations – and another 4 countries with light summaries. We’re aiming to cover 50 countries by mid-May.

We hope that COVID-19 Policy Watch can serve as a historical record, of sorts: a place where it is easy to research, learn about and compare governments’ responses to the pandemic.

New Zealand has been praised recently for the way the Government has communicated their policies, particularly in helping people understand the importance of following the rules. How does this compare to other countries?

 New Zealand’s ‘Alert Level’ system has provided a common language for New Zealanders to talk about and understand the restrictions – it’s an approach we haven’t seen in many other countries’ public communications efforts. 

Other governments around the world take different approaches, but many publish detailed, accessible information about their responses, and we’ve been glad to see some good examples of public information. 

Can you tell me a little about your start-up policy, and how it seeks to promote civic education and democracy?

We believe that it should be easy for people to understand what governments are going to do on the issues that matter to their lives. We also believe the public is best served by a media that can access and report on complex policy issues accurately. So, we help media organisations report on elections by co-publishing online interactive tools.

For the 2020 New Zealand election, we’re expanding to create resources for schools.

 - Asia Media Centre