Unless every country has good data, we won’t beat future pandemics

By on 02/07/2020
Count this: many developing world nations have weak data capabilities, making it difficult to track and combat COVID-19

No country can tackle COVID-19 without a clear picture of the disease’s development and impact, says Johannes Jütting. Less developed nations, he argues, must be helped to acquire the funds and staff required to know their enemy – enabling them to defeat it

Like many working in the sustainable development field, we at the Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century (PARIS21) are heartened that Canada has helped lead a drive for greater global cooperation to address the impacts of COVID-19. During a virtual meeting in April, convened by the foreign affairs ministers of Canada and Jamaica, ambassadors from around the globe committed to taking urgent, concerted action to “ensure that countries are provided the support they need to overcome… complex challenges” related to the pandemic. 

Health, trade and food-related issues will probably receive the lion’s share of this support. Yet it is worth remembering that many poor countries lack the basic capacity to produce crucial data upon which to base effective response and recovery efforts. If you can’t even measure infection rates among your population or count how many have lost their jobs, how can you design appropriate policies in response?

Producing high-quality, timely and trustworthy data can be a tricky business at the best of times. Most national statistical agencies rely on a combination of census data, surveys, and administrative data to provide the information required to enable modern societies to function. Of course, during a pandemic, the data collected by health ministries, medical and academic institutions and private companies also becomes vitally important. But governments still need a central institution to oversee the process, provide due diligence and verify the quality of the data – and, of course, to ensure that adequate privacy and other protections are being provided. (On 22 July, I’ll be joining a free Global Government Forum webinar to discuss how governments can use data to combat COVID-19: more details of the panel discussions here.)

Advanced democracies such as Canada are fortunate enough to have national statistical institutions which are already far down the path to modernisation. Canada’s chief statistician Anil Arora (who was interviewed last year by Global Government Forum) recently confirmed that if Canada hadn’t spent years investing in modernising its national statistical system for years, it would not have been able to respond as effectively to the pandemic. As he put it: “We didn’t know that we were preparing for COVID, but we were preparing for a future based on more granular, timely and integrated data.”

While Canada, like many OECD countries, is well-prepared in this respect, consider the toll of COVID-19 on national statistical systems in least-developed economies or fragile states. Many, already facing considerable institutional challenges, are now further constrained by remote working arrangements, staff shortages and funding issues, while at the same time facing unprecedented data demands from their governments.

COVID-19 affects certain groups disproportionally, and countries that have low statistical capacity may find it particularly challenging to produce the kinds of statistics that are vital to creating inclusive, just and empowering policies. Add to this the additional challenges of producing data under a health emergency, and you will start to understand how fundamentally ill-prepared many countries are to respond to a crisis like COVID-19.

We, the international community, need to provide much greater support to national statistical systems in developing countries. Canada, bilaterally and through engagements with organisations such as PARIS21, is providing training, knowledge-sharing and technical support to national statistical offices in dozens of countries.

Yet we need to do much more. Currently, overseas development assistance from wealthy countries to support data and statistics in developing countries is only around half of what is required to ensure that they have adequate data to support sustainable development. Often, donor support to statistics is overlooked in favour of more visible issues such as schools or vaccines. But it is no less important.

As the current COVID-19 pandemic shows us, getting the data right is a matter of life and death. Informed public debate needs reliable, trustworthy data on such issues as small business bankruptcies, gender inequality and poverty. More than anything else, every single data point about death or recovery represents a human life; we owe it to the dignity of every person, regardless of the country in which they live, to portray that number accurately. As Arora puts it, “every single number (…) is about an individual. It could be a family member, it could be a colleague, a neighbour – it could be a business you relied upon.”

COVID-19 won’t be the last pandemic, and viruses don’t respect borders. The only way that we will win against the next global disease is to work together – and that means ensuring that every country has the data it needs.

Johannes Jütting

Johannes Jütting is the executive head of the Partnership in Statistics for Development in the 21st Century (PARIS21), which was established in 1999 by the European Commission, International Monetary Fund, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, United Nations and World Bank to improve evidence-based decision-making for sustainable development. 

On 22 July, he’ll be participating on a GGF webinar on the use of data to combat COVID-19, joining panellists including the Head of Chile’s Digital Government Division Francisco Rodriguez, Australia’s Assistant Secretary for COVID-19 data Alistair Campbell, the Chief of the UN’s Data Innovation and Capacity Branch Ronald Jansen, and former Mexican Chief Data Officer Enrique Zapata. To join this free event, please visit our registration page. 

You can also listen to Johannes’s conversation with Anil Arora on a podcast available via Spotify or Apple.

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