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Africa needs comprehensive data across all countries to overcome Covid-19

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Dr Emmanuel Agogo is the country representative in Nigeria for Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of Vital Strategies, part of the PERC-Partnership for an Evidence-based Response to Covid-19, with the Africa CDC, the World Health Organisation, the World Economic Forum and Ipsos.

Preventing loss of life to Covid-19 must continue to be a top priority in Africa, but cases and deaths capture only a small part of the effects of the pandemic on people across the continent. Decision-makers must also consider the impact of pandemic response measures on citizens’ lives, livelihoods, and liberties, and the long-term effects people will endure.

Each day it is clearer that Africa will not be spared the devastation of Covid-19. To date, the African continent has recorded close to 500,000 Covid-19 cases and more than 11,000 deaths. In the last week of June, the caseload increased by over 75,000.

These numbers still pale in comparison to global figures, where close to 12 million people are affected and more than half a million have died. The early response on the continent – most countries swiftly implemented public health and social measures, including economic lockdowns, curfews, wearing masks, hand-washing and social distancing – has been lauded as a lifesaving measure

But while preventing loss of life to Covid-19 must continue to be a top priority, cases and deaths capture only a small part of the effects of the pandemic on people across the continent. Decision-makers must also consider the impact of pandemic response measures on citizens’ lives, livelihoods, and liberties, and the long-term effects people will endure.

By using a more multidisciplinary approach to data monitoring, countries can have a nuanced understanding of the situation in communities and can tailor their Covid-19 response measures to limit unnecessary hardship.

How do we know this? 

Multiple streams of data provide a much fuller picture of Covid-19’s effects. Earlier this year, Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of Vital Strategies, partnered with international health NGOs and research firms to compile a comprehensive data package that would provide decision-makers in 20 countries in Africa with a clearer understanding of the impact of implementing public health and social measures. 

This includes epidemiological data, which shows how Covid-19 is spreading in countries, and information on response measures that countries have implemented. It also includes data on people’s knowledge and attitudes about the pandemic and response measures implemented by governments (collected by a large telephone survey in the 20 countries, as well as from an analysis of social media postings); mobility data, which shows adherence to stay-at-home-orders; and information on security incidents, which can indicate resistance to Covid-19 response measures.

Survey findings

Our initial analyses – which were conducted in late April, still early in the pandemic on the African continent – illustrate why it is so important to use data effectively to understand the responses to the pandemic. Because they combine many types of data, they can capture more nuance, and help countries to make sure that they contextualise the public health and social measures in a way that ensures that their people do not suffer unnecessarily. 

For example, from the initial data, we could tell that there was a risk of increasing economic hardship and food insecurity and malnutrition, as well as the threat of violence, because of the impacts of the public health and social measures. These concerns have been borne out by events occurring subsequently in some countries. 

We found that people were more resistant to closing workplaces than shutting down markets, which came as a surprise, as we expected people to be more resistant to closing mosques and churches and other religious institutions.

There were several other interesting findings in our study based on the perceptions of citizens. For one, we found that across the continent, fewer than half the people interviewed believed they were at risk of contracting the virus. More than 60% believed that Covid-19 could be prevented by drinking lemon or taking vitamin C. And just over 40% believed that Africans could not get Covid-19. In addition, about 73% thought that a hot climate prevented the spread of the virus and 61% believe that avoiding a person who has recovered from Covid-19 prevents them from getting it. None of these beliefs is true.

The study found four in five respondents anticipated that Covid-19 would be a big problem in their countries, but they did not think they were personally at risk.

These findings are important because they help us understand how people would react to certain public health and social measures. They help governments determine how the measures need to be adapted to ensure that people follow them. 

Taking this forward  

The main recommendations from the first report we supported include ensuring that we build lasting public health systems, that we monitor data and that we use data that is generated more effectively. And finally, that we need to engage communities early and deliberately to help them understand the need for public health and social measures and to empower them to take leadership in the response to Covid-19.

As the pandemic evolves, further waves of research are planned to provide real-time updates that reflect current response efforts, changes to people’s perceptions, and timely recommendations and guidance. DM

Gallery

"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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