COVID-19: The role of National Statistical Offices during the pandemic

Hernán Muñoz

July 23, 2020 

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has currently affected 14 million people globally and killed around 600,000 people (European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, 2020), has received mixed responses from the States in terms of testing, treatment, isolation, mobility restrictions and financial aid to the population and the economy. The discussions around each measure´s effectiveness include data of different nature and quality that are immersed in a forced comparability exercise between countries. 

Likewise, public statistics have helped to measure the pandemic´s impact, not only in terms of health, but from an economic and social perspective, as well as to think about mitigation and recovery strategies once this situation ends. 

COVID-19 has put official statistics at the center of the scene, challenging information systems and exposing their weaknesses. We have seen consistency and comparability problems in health official data as well as lack of clear rules in its dissemination. This has created skepticism in the population, and has impact the effectiveness of the measures implemented to alleviate the crisis. This situation revalues the role played by the recommendations of good practices for the production and dissemination of official data, especially in regards to the public policy cycle effectiveness, from the identification of the problem to its implementation and evaluation.

National Statistical Offices (NSOs) have faced an unprecedented challenge. In most countries, NSOs lead all official statistics and have been required to validate and assist in the production of specific information related to COVID-19. On the other hand, regular statistical activity was significantly altered. Statistics production includes field operations for which, for confidence and effectiveness in the response, face-to-face interviews are a fundamental pillar. The impossibility of making home visits represented a methodological and implementation challenge. NSOs in many cases have had to obey strict quarantines and their desk staff had to adapt to remote work.

The COVID-19 global survey carried out by the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD) and the World Bank, which included 122 countries, shows that 65% of NSOs have partially or completely closed their offices and 96% have partially or totally interrupted face-to-face interviews. One of the main conclusions that emerges from this survey is that NSOs in countries with fewer financial resources are facing the greatest challenges. 90% of low- and lower-middle-income countries had difficulties reporting international information requirements, while that proportion is 50% in the most developed countries. The pandemic is also exacerbating inequalities between countries in this area. This phenomenon finds one of its main explanations in the limitations of resources and technical capacities, which highlights the urgent need for international aid.

On the other hand, the pandemic has also implied an opportunity for NSOs, in the sense that their function has been revalued. Strengthening and reforming information systems in general, and specially NSOs´, offers an opportunity to advance in the preparation of a more efficient data infrastructure to face future challenges.

Novel responses to the situation have emerged. In general terms, a trend to expand the use of non-traditional methods as well as the digital revolution for data collection has been observed. The use of administrative records, telephone or online surveys and big data has been intensified. According to the survey carried out by UNSD and the World Bank, more than 50% of NSOs around the world have moved towards the use of telephone surveys and administrative records. In addition, a third of the respondents reported having implemented online surveys. On the other hand, around 15% of NSOs have produced information based on non-traditional sources, mainly from social networks and telephone call records, and in a lesser extend sensor data, satellite images, citizens generated data and crowdsourcing. 

COVID-19 pandemic has become, in many ways, a hinge of our era. Statistics are not excluded from this reality. Modernization of data production has been progressively progressing, but the transformation of novel elements was decisively accelerated with the pandemic. In the times to come, this trend is likely to consolidate. The international community must work for these improvements to impact countries in a homogeneous way, following the premise of leaving no one behind.