As the COVID-19 crisis continues its relentless spread, questions have been raised about the availability and reliability of African data on the pandemic. Despite the catastrophic scenarios envisaged by some commentators, who foresaw large numbers of Africans dying in the streets, the continent so far has done relatively well in terms of low COVID-19 infection and death rates. But is the success mainly a ‘data issue’, with missing or poor-quality data obscuring the extent of the problem? Can African data and statistics be trusted, given the supposedly weak state of capacity?
COVID-19 and African Data
The reality is that African national statistics offices (NSOs) have done a remarkable job in providing data and statistics under extremely difficult circumstances. Nine in ten NSOs in low- and lower-middle-income countries face funding constraints under COVID, yet many African NSOs have been providing additional data to help their governments take difficult decisions.
In Namibia, for example, the NSO is mapping the propagation of the virus throughout the country, while the Niger National Institute of Statistics is producing daily COVID-19 updates and the Ghana Statistical Service has a COVID-19 information hub & trackers covering metrics such as household, business and mobility. So while there are challenges in data collection in African countries – particularly at a time when many statisticians have to work from home – there is also resilience. In fact, the situation with respect to data and statistics in the continent is much better now than a decade ago.
Take the World Bank Statistical Capacity Indicator: a composite indicator of the state of data and statistics across countries. It shows that the gap in quality between African data and the rest of the world has narrowed considerably since 2005. In fact, half of the countries that have seen the most progress were in Africa.
Thanks to increasingly pervasive digitisation, government investment and international partnerships – notably with China and India – African countries have made great progress in the quality of national accounts, and are re-measuring the size and structure of their economies more frequently.
African NSOs are also increasingly subscribing to data standards. These play an important role in fostering transparency, encouraging statistical development, and linking data dissemination to monitoring. In fact, Africa is second only to Europe in subscriptions to the IMF’s data standards initiatives.
Some African NSOs have also used the COVID-19 crisis to pursue bold and innovative public-private partnerships. The Ghana Statistical Service, for instance, has teamed up with Vodafone Ghana and the Flowminder Foundation to use anonymised mobile data to track mobility under lockdown conditions. And the Government of Guinea is using mobile phone ringtones to push public service announcements about the disease.