As we face one of the greatest challenges in recent times, the limited information about the spread of the coronavirus means that we are seriously handicapped in identifying the symptoms and isolating people before they become unwitting carriers of the disease. As much as the virus is an “invisible killer”, its potency is magnified several times over by the socio-economic conditions in developing countries – poverty, informality and a large existing disease burden. Like Western countries, we are struggling to contain the spread of the virus, but unlike them, we have much fewer resources to activate in response. For example, India has only about 0.5 hospital beds per 1,000 people, compared to an OECD average of 4.6 beds per 1,000 people. What makes it worse is that we are fighting the disease in the dark.
To begin with, we have very little information on the true extent of the spread of the virus because of low testing. The World Health Organisation has urged countries to test as much as possible, as it is the only reliable way to keep the disease in check and respond appropriately. Even among known cases, having data at the state level is insufficient in order to make important ground-level policy decisions. Rajasthan, for example, has the same population as that of France -- imagine not knowing anything about the location of those cases within France, except that there are 133 cases in total.
Given the magnitude of the problem, our testing, information collection and relief efforts need to be more targeted and geographically precise, and this itself requires much more data. We need three crucial pieces of information in addition to more testing -- including accurate and sufficient information on the socioeconomic environment that we live in, feedback data on administrative actions, and a clear and consistent channel of formal communication to counter rampant misinformation.
First, appropriately responding to the medical and economic challenges, and making decisions about the allocation of resources -- how much relief, to whom and where -- requires knowing more about the environment we are operating in. Yet, we lack rigorous data on how many migrants live in a particular district, and how many people work in the informal sector, which will determine how the vulnerable are affected by the lockdown. While the impact of the mass reverse migrations of the past few days on the geographic spread of the disease is not yet known, accurate district-level data on cases and movements would help formulate a more systematic and coordinated policy reponse.
As we watch in horror the reports on the record number of Americans filing for unemployment and its doubling once again this week, it is concerning to think that there are probably far more Indians whose livelihoods have been crushed overnight. Yet, gravely enough, we do not even know this number, which makes it harder to respond in a manner that the situation calls for. Ignorance simply cannot be bliss. Similarly, we need more data on how many migrants live in a given area, where they have come from and where they have gone to during the past weeks’ exodus -- without knowing this, inter-state coordination is as good as groping in the dark. A lot of this data is available in various ministries at the village, municipality and district levels, but more efforts need to be made to compile this information, make it easily accessible and incorporate it into the response strategy.
Second, we need administrative data on the ways in which governments at the local and district levels, who are in the first line of response, are coping with the crisis. For example, while the lockdown has been implemented all over the country, to what extents are they really being enforced? How many violations of the lockdown are occurring, how many cases are being registered in response? The advantages of a well-oiled bureaucracy are that these numbers exist, and can probably be found in a desktop computer or a daily report to a district magistrate somewhere. If we can collect this data and publish it in real time, it will help the administration respond faster and more appropriately. Publishing an official summary at the end of the crisis will be both insufficient and unhelpful. To make more informed policy and to enforce existing policy better -- we need data, more than ever, and we need it right now.
Finally, we also need reliable sources of official data to replace the falsehoods that thrive in a vacuum. While the amount of information that is available to us has expanded by orders of magnitude over the past decade, so has the amount of misinformation. We need voices of credibility to communicate with the people, not once a week or once a fortnight, but every day. Daily press briefings are required to communicate the government’s strategy, the progress made by frontline workers, and reiterate the risks posed by social interactions. But in addition, they should actively counter the circulating myths, fabrications and fake news that endanger people’s lives and aim to stem the tide of misinformation that threatens to consume our inboxes and conversations.
To respond effectively to one of the greatest challenges facing our planet in recent times, we need to pay urgent attention to the ecosystem in which this response occurs. Without accurate and timely information, our reactions will be as good as guesses....