In the absence of data, how are governments responding to COVID-19?


The COVID-19 pandemic has sent the entire world into a tailspin, and one of the biggest challenges we face, worldwide, is the inconsistent responses and mixed messages coming from different authorities. This makes it incredibly hard to understand what is happening, and how to respond to it.

Why the mixed messages?

Governments are struggling to understand the pandemic due to the inherently poor quality of the supporting data. In the absence of universal testing the data is, at best, incomplete.

We do not know the actual infection rate or the actual death rate, in addition to how many people have recovered without ever having being tested. This is because we are only able to test a very small sample of the population.

Lack of quality information creates confusion

The lack of quality data means that all of the metrics we have are based on an incomplete picture, resulting in governments around the world making decisions in a data vacuum. In the absence of comprehensive information, the responses from governments around the world have differed vastly.

In the United States of America (USA), for example, there is a lot of confusion and each state has its own strategy. Conversely, the United Kingdom (UK) originally decided to let the virus run its course, and then did an about-face and is now locking down.

These examples highlight how individual bias affects the decision-making process in the absence of sufficient data. In the specific example of COVID-19, this bias can be expressed as a bias towards science (putting a lock down in place) or a bias against science (limited action taken).

For once, being behind the curve has been advantageous for South Africa. Our relatively late infection with the pandemic means that we had more data to work with than many other countries. The government very quickly went into lockdown mode, a decision based on the analysis of the available data.

In the absence of data, how does data science help?

Even in the absence of accurate data, with the limited information that is available, there are models that have been developed to help us understand what will happen in various scenarios, including with or without a lockdown. Current science shows that social distance and isolation are the most effective ways of containing the spread of the virus.

The term has been coined ‘flattening the curve’, and the aim is basically to reduce the number of people getting sick at any single point in time. This is proven, by the data we do have, to be the best way to reduce the mortality rate. As the graphic above shows, uncontrolled transmission leads to a dramatic spike in the number of cases in a short time period, as experienced by, for example, Italy. When the medical system is unable to care for all of the patients in need of assistance, the number of deaths spikes.

Without controls the pandemic will peak early, and hard. One infected person whose movement is not restricted could pass on the infection to several others, who then pass it on themselves. Within weeks thousands of people will have the virus. By self-isolating, those who have the virus will still be infected, but they break the chain of infecting others, slowing the rate of infection and preventing medical facilities from becoming overwhelmed.

Locked down, but for how long?

South Africa took swift and decisive action in locking the country down, but without accurate data we do not know how many people were infected before we went into lockdown, and how long it will take to recover. This means that everyone has to make educated guesses. However, the data still supports the fact that the lockdown is the most sensible approach to handling the crisis. For those interested in the math behind the model, this video is worth a watch.

At the end of the 21-day lockdown, we simply do not know exactly what the situation will look like, so to predict what will happen is impossible.  Accurate data would, of course, enable better planning and decision making for our government, the same way it does for any business. In the absence of this data, however, our government is making a scientifically-driven decision based on the best available information.

The best thing we can do is stay at home and follow the lockdown protocol. This is not only the soundest way to protect ourselves and our country, but also those people working on the front line. This includes the medical staff treating the ill and infected, the pharmacists who are keeping us supplied with needed medicines, the cashiers and retail staff who are still working despite the risk, and every other person actively keeping our country going. Ignoring the science and the data we do have will only make everyone’s lives more difficult in the long run.

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