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COVID-19 widens gulf of global data inequality, while national statistical offices step up to meet new data demands

This article is also available in Russian.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has exacted a heavy toll, with more than 6 million cases worldwide and nearly 400,000 deaths from COVID-19 as of this writing. Much of the world remains on lockdown, adding loss of livelihood and financial suffering to the grave health impacts of the virus.

National statistical systems have not been exempt from the ravages of the disease. At a time when the need for high-quality, timely data is more urgent than ever, national statistical systems have been hobbled by restrictions on face-to-face survey interviewing due to social and physical distancing measures. Nonetheless, governments, civil society, and the general public are increasingly turning to national statistical offices (NSOs) for reliable data to understand the health, economic, and social impacts of the pandemic. NSOs are also playing a critical role of validation and quality assurance across the statistical system, given the steady demand for more and newer data as we try to adjust to this ‘new normal’.

In the midst of this crunch, the Statistics Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs and the World Bank’s Development Data Group, in coordination with the five UN regional commissions, launched a global online survey to monitor the nature, scale, and scope of the impact of the coronavirus crisis on statistical agencies, as well as to identify new data needs. The survey was designed to inform the global statistical community on how to better respond to the immediate needs of countries facing the most urgent challenges, and plan a coordinated effort to navigate through the crisis and its impact over the next few months. A second wave of the survey will be launched later this month.

The survey results, covering the 122 countries that responded to the questionnaire, are summarized in a report available on the UN Statistics Division website, clearly underscore the tremendous challenges faced by national statistical offices as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. The results also include information on the measures being taken by statistical agencies to mitigate negative impacts and meet new data demands, as well as the areas that require priority support from partners.

Here are three key messages that stand out from the data.

First, the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating global data inequalities, as statistical agencies in countries with the least resources are also those facing the greatest challenges in coping with the crisis, let alone adapting data collection operations to this new reality. Among other things, the pandemic has impacted the operations of the vast majority of national statistical offices, requiring office closures, telework and the suspension of face-to-face interviews. 65 percent of NSO headquarters offices are partially or fully closed, 90 percent have instructed staff to work from home, and 96 percent have partially or fully stopped face-to-face data collection.

Proportion of National Statistical Offices that have partially or fully restricted access to their main office building, by region

Proportion of National Statistical Offices that have introduced telework for at least some of their staff, by region

Statistical operations have been hardest hit in low- and lower middle-income countries, while better resourced statistical systems in East Asia, Europe, and North America have largely been able to protect their essential operations. Nine out of ten NSOs in low- and lower middle-income countries saw the pandemic blunt their ability to meet international reporting requirements, as opposed to one in two NSOs in high-income countries. The report details similar trends in the production of essential monthly or quarterly statistics, the production of administrative data statistics, and survey operations, where NSOs in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia, Europe and Northern America, and Oceania have been relatively less affected..

Second, the global statistical community and donors must urgently provide technical assistance and financial resources to the national statistical offices most in need of support. We find that nine in ten national statistical offices in low- and lower middle-income countries are facing difficulties operating during the pandemic due to funding constraints, as more than half have seen funding cuts. 73 NSOs – 61 percent of those responding to this question in the survey – stated the need for additional external support to face the challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Priority areas for support in this group of countries include technical assistance and capacity building, financial support, and software for remote data collection.

Finally, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of the digital revolution, while opening up new possibilities to strengthen and modernize core data collection programmes as the backbone of national data systems. Despite the many disruptions caused by the pandemic, national statistical offices are taking up the mantle of responding to new data needs and demands. We find that the majority of NSOs are implementing surveys on COVID-19 and its impacts, and are either planning or setting up national platforms to address the data needs of their government and citizens. To monitor and assess the impacts of COVID-19, in lieu of face-to-face surveys, statistical offices around the world have been relying on alternative data collection modes and data sources, most prominently phone surveys (58 percent) and administrative data (53 percent), in addition to online surveys (34 percent). However, as highlighted in the report, NSOs in low- and lower middle-income countries rely significantly less often on remote sensing and satellite imagery, revealing technology and infrastructure deficits that must be addressed by donors during this fraught time.

The UN system and the World Bank, in coordination with the UN regional commissions, intend to continue monitoring the situation in the coming months through multiple follow-up rounds to this survey. The feedback we receive from NSOs will be critical in helping us better support our statistical partners, as the global statistical community continue to play its vital role in informing all sectors of society during this unprecedented crisis. We are committed to supporting countries to turn this crisis into an opportunity to invest smartly in more resilient and modernized integrated data/statistical systems.

This blog post and report were simultaneously published on the World Bank website.

Resources:

To read the full survey report, please visit please visit this link or data.worldbank.org.


Haishan Fu is the Director of the World Bank’s Development Data Group, overseeing its global development monitoring and open data initiative, surveys and other technical advisory services, and global statistical programs such as the International Comparison Program. In her capacity as the Ex-Officio member of the WBG Data Council and the Co-Chair of the Development Data Directors Group, Haishan leads and coordinates the development and implementation of the Bank’s development data agenda. She has been an active leader in the global statistical community, having served or currently serving as a member of the UN Secretary General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group on Data Revolution for Sustainable Development, Council Member of the International Statistical Institute, and Co-Chair of the Global Steering Committee of the Global Strategy to Improve Agricultural and Rural Statistics, among others. Read More

Stefan Schweinfest was appointed Director of the Statistics Division (UNSD/DESA) in July 2014. Under his leadership, the Division compiles and disseminates global statistical information, develops standards and norms for statistical activities including the integration of geospatial, statistical and other information, and supports countries’ efforts to strengthen their national statistical and geospatial systems. Read More