As part of the Global Soft Power Index – the world’s most comprehensive research study on perceptions of nation brands, 75,000 respondents from the general public and 750 from specialist audiences were asked about the handling of COVID-19 by 105 nations worldwide.
The respondents were asked to rate the nations’ efforts in terms of stimulating the economy, protecting the health and wellbeing of citizens, as well as cooperating on the international stage and providing aid.
New Zealand versus the US
Hailed as a global success story in the combat of COVID-19, New Zealand has been rated by the general public as the country that best handled the pandemic, with a net score of +43%. The net score is the difference between ‘handled it well’ and ‘handled it badly’ responses across the three measures (economy, health & wellbeing, and international aid & cooperation).
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s swift response and clarity of communication in handling the crisis has been widely praised by the media and recognized by people the world over.
At the other end of the spectrum, ranking bottom among 105 nations globally, the United States has a regretful net score of -16%, certainly a contrast to how strongly the US performed on other metrics in last year’s Global Soft Power Index 2020 survey. President Donald Trump’s response to the pandemic has been causing controversy both at home and abroad, with the president repeatedly refusing to acknowledge and act on the severity of the situation. With the most cases and COVID-19-related deaths globally, the world’s largest and strongest economy has encountered harsh criticism and questioning on the global stage.
The stark contrast between the public’s perceptions of how New Zealand and the US handled the pandemic, epitomizes the two nations’ contrasting visions of the world, spearheaded by almost polar-opposite leaders. On the one hand, we have Ardern’s open, liberal, and compassionate policies versus Trump’s often combative, protectionist, and isolationist approach. With President-Elect Joe Biden getting ready to take the reins of power next year, all eyes will be on him to kickstart recovery across the nation.
Disappointing performances with reputations under threat
Other Western powerhouses’ weaknesses have also been displayed for the world to see during the pandemic, and their failings have not gone unnoticed by the general public respondents.
France (+15%), United Kingdom (+14%), Spain (+4%), and Italy (-1%), all record particularly low net scores. The UK in particular has struggled to negotiate the ongoing repercussions from the pandemic, including the fallout from the sharpest economic contraction on record – 20.4% in April this year, leaving the nation in a state of turmoil. The UK, Spain, and Italy are currently within the top 10 highest mortality rates per 100,000 in the world, with Italy recording the highest mortality rates per 100,000 among the three at 102.16.
Role models of crisis management?
Many affluent nations with a strong reputation of being well-run, have emerged as apparent role models in crisis management in the eyes of the public, often regardless of their approaches to handling the pandemic. Strong net scores above +35% were noted by nations such as Switzerland, Japan, Canada, Finland, Norway, Singapore, Denmark, South Korea, Australia, Austria, and Sweden.
Sweden – a nation that was particularly controversial in its COVID-19 response, snubbing the lockdown consensus and imposing comparatively relaxed restrictions and policies in pursuit of herd immunity – has a troubling 8th highest incidence of deaths per 100,000 in the European Economic Area. However, the general public and specialist audiences both rank Sweden a high 13th globally for its handling of the pandemic across all three measures.
Japan has defied the odds of many that expected the nation to be one of the worst hit at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak – due to its proximity to China, its densely populated cities, and burgeoning elderly population. But it has emerged as relatively successful, with lower Coronavirus cases and deaths and with its economy faring better.
Lack of familiarity hinders nations
At the same time, many other nations do not receive enough credit for their efforts where credit is clearly due. Vietnam’s net score is just +8%, despite recording staggeringly low COVID-19 cases and deaths. The story is the same for Slovakia with a net score of only +5%, but with far fewer cases than its European counterparts and a successful mass asymptomatic testing programme, which countries like the UK are hoping to replicate, the nation nonetheless falls far lower down the ranking than expected.
The UAE is the highest ranked nation in the survey across the Middle East, and 14th globally, with a net score of +33%. The nation’s efforts, from international aid to vaccine development, have meant the UAE is perceived to have handled the pandemic better than its neighbors, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, with net scores of +29% and +24% respectively. The nation’s lower levels of familiarity, compared to nations like Switzerland, Denmark, and Austria seems to be a limiting factor, however.
The results demonstrate that in order for nations to establish positive perceptions of their actions, there are many more factors at play than successful implementation of their policies. As shown, reputation plays a vital role, as does familiarity. Nations with high reputations are often given extra credit by the general public, while those receiving low media attention have notably underperformed in the survey.
Germany’s success recognised by specialist audiences
According to the specialist audiences, in turn, it was Germany that has come out on top as the country that has handled COVID-19 best, with a net score of 71%. New Zealand was ranked 3rd by specialist audiences with a net positive score of 57%. Compared to the general public, the specialist audiences have understood and recognised the greater challenge that Germany has faced throughout the pandemic, as a nation with a much larger population and shared borders with several other nations, unlike New Zealand.
For the most part, the German government’s and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s response to the pandemic has been received positively both domestically and internationally and the numbers support this with the country recording consistently lower cases per 100,000 than its Western European counterparts.
China most complimentary of WHO’s handling of COVID-19 crisis
One further question was added to the Global Soft Power Index survey asking how respondents perceived the World Health Organisation’s handling of the crisis. Overall, 31% of respondents believe WHO ‘handled it well’, compared to 20% who believed it was ‘handled badly’.
Chinese respondents were the most complimentary of WHO’s handling of the crisis, with a net positive response of +53% of respondents saying the organization ‘handled it well’. At the other end of the spectrum, Japanese respondents were the least complimentary, with a net negative response of -51% of respondents saying the organization ‘handled it badly’. Interestingly, there were mixed reviews across the US, which notably withdrew from WHO this year. 35% of US respondents said WHO ‘handled it well’, 26% ‘handled it badly’ and 33% answered ‘mixed’.