By Nicholas Rosellini
UN Resident Coordinator in China
The COVID-19 pandemic has spread across the world with unprecedented speed, impacting over 200 countries and territories and resulting in around one-third of the world’s population being in lockdown.
Less than one month ago, China had over 77,000 cases and was battling to respond to the outbreak, especially in the original epicentre - Wuhan. Based 1000km to the north in Beijing, the UN team has been working hard to respond to the outbreak, while also coming to grips with a different way of life. No socialising or working from the office and self-isolation has become our norm. When the outbreak first started in January, I had no idea how the situation would evolve and that the emergency response would last for over 10 weeks.
Here in China, the virus struck as people were looking forward to the Chinese New Year festivities. In common with many others, I put my travel plans on hold and the UN team had to immediately gear up to prepare and respond to the national emergency.
But there is hope.
Now across China very few cases are being reported each day and the country is now firmly on the road to recovery. Yet although I see many positive developments, much remains to be done. How does the world get back to a ‘new normal’? and what have myself and the UN office in China, learnt (both the challenges and positives) through this experience that is useful to others now undergoing a similar onslaught from the virus?
As the Resident Coordinator I saw four priorities for the UN team in China:
- Ensuring the safety of staff while maintaining a strong response capacity
- Providing immediate support to the national response efforts
- Looking ahead to the broader socio-economic implications
- Leveraging the power of media and social media
Safeguarding the staff
When a disaster or emergency happens, our staff are a vital resource, but they are also equally affected by the situation, needing to care for their families and worry about essential supplies and transport. Similar to most organisations going through the outbreak at the moment, the UN China team immediately instituted remote working and tele-conferencing, giving all staff the maximum flexibility in their working arrangements to allow them to take care of their personal responsibilities. At the same time, I wanted to emphasise to staff and UN partners, that the office was “open for business plus” – not only keeping regular work going but also responding to the emergency.
How did it work out? From the start all the UN team adopted a common approach and common messaging for staff. Largely speaking, working from home was successful. What would have been difficult even a decade ago, is now relatively straightforward, with smartphones, conferencing apps such as Zoom, and documentation in the cloud. While social interaction and partnership building will always be part of achieving results, the experience has shown we can still be effective in difficult situations. It may well be that the novel coronavirus pandemic will have a long-lasting impact on work patterns around the world, allowing more flexibility and work-life balance without losing productivity. The pandemic could be one of the unforeseen shapers of the future of work.
Mobilising collectively as one UN family for emergency response
During the emergency response, I’ve seen the focus of my role as RC as drawing on the wider UN team’s expertise to complement WHO’s important health role in supporting the national public health response. The value added was in mobilising a ‘whole of UN’ response and in situating WHO’s focus on public health within the broader socio-economic context.
The first priority was to provide immediate support to the country’s emergency needs. China is a high-capacity country as well as the world’s manufacturing hub, but the outbreak coincided with the spring festival period and the shutdown of most factories. As a result, there were important if temporary gaps in critical supplies and China asked for international support to respond to the outbreak. Since mid- January, the team coordinated closely with the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) and the National Health Commission (NHC), to understand the needs of the government and expected standards, and the UN agencies procured resources based on their availability (for example, UNICEF was the first agency to mobilise supplies and has so far sent four shipments to China). We coordinated closely to avoid duplication and reduce transactions costs for the already overstretched government. Now we are using these established emergency procedures and channels to shift our focus to working with China on how to procure PPEs for other countries.
Leverage the power of media and social media
In the initial stage of the outbreak, the country was fighting an infodemic war, with an unprecedented demand for information from trustworthy sources and many unknowns causing increased levels of fear resulting in irrational behaviour and stigma.
So, what was the approach? Coordinated through the UN Communications Group the RCO team emphasised “one strong UN voice”, beginning with a public statement from myself, stressing the need for hope and solidarity, at a time when the country and its people needed international solidarity the most. Across all UN agencies in China, messaging emphasized a “whole of society approach” to the outbreak and channelled the power of social media to interact with the public.
The collective result was inspiring - together the agencies generated over 100 media statements, interviews and news releases, to educate and interact with the public on both the health aspects but also the socio-economic challenges. Jointly we achieved over 1 billion views of UN communications channels and also implemented very successful social media campaigns – the one on ‘Social Distancing’ attracted more than 55 million views online. And the effort has been effective – a subsequent survey conducted in March indicated a 34% increase of people maintaining social distancing since the outbreak, and more than 90% of survey respondents correctly identified hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette, and social distancing recommendations. Through these challenging circumstances the UN Communication Group came together stronger than ever and demonstrated the importance of collective communication efforts.
Implementing a plan of action of long-term socio-economic recovery
This year the Government of China has vowed to eradicate extreme poverty in China and the UN team wanted to make sure this emergency did not distract from this crucial development goal – which will be critical if we are to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals.
During any sort of emergency, the most vulnerable are at most risk. Poorer communities without the capacity or resources to respond to sudden shocks can be disproportionately affected. There's also been the impact on the health system for people not necessarily suffering from coronavirus, but from other illnesses which may not be prioritized because of the attention on coronavirus, and impact on the education system with children not being able to go to school, alongside the much broader economic impact as well.
I therefore encouraged agencies to leverage their development expertise to support vulnerable groups and poverty reduction efforts. For example, UNDP translated the key health messages across regional dialects, to make sure those vulnerable ethnic minority groups have access to the critical information they need. UNICEF created an online information portal for parents to help them keep their children safe and is working closely with schools and social services to provide policy and project support, and UNAIDS launched a nationwide survey to make sure all those living with HIV are still receiving the help they need during this difficult time.
In looking at the issue of vulnerability, the team found that China’s community mobilisation and all of society approach to combating the virus provided some positive lessons for others on managing the socio-economic impacts. For example, China demonstrated how to continue to provide quality education to children who need to remain at home, through efficiently switching to online teaching. The government also implemented a number of policies and measures to support business productivity in a safe and coordinated manner, and to stimulate the economy and make sure jobs are secure, especially for vulnerable groups such as migrant workers.
Now moving forward, the UN China team will be working with partners to assess the broader socio-economic impact of COVID-19 and the lessons learned during the outbreak with a view to informing future programming and the government’s recovery efforts. I hope these lessons from China will also help other countries during the recovery phase to build back stronger.
Finally, as we say in China Jia You (meaning come on/keep going). China has showed the world there IS hope but the UN family and other international organisations around the world have an important (and challenging) role in responding to this developing crisis. With this year being the 75th Anniversary of the UN, now is the time to come together in global solidarity and support vulnerable communities to make sure this crisis doesn’t stop us all from achieving the 2030 Agenda!