How Are African Countries Using Data to Address the COVID-19 Pandemic? Early Reflections from the #Data4COVID19 Africa Challenge

The GovLab
Jul 30 · 7 min read

This piece, written by Samantha Lee, was originally published on the #Data4COVID19 Africa Challenge blog, which contains information on a data challenge hosted by l’Agence française de développement (AFD), Expertise France, and The GovLab to support projects that use data to address COVID-19 and its consequences across Africa. To learn more please visit https://datachallenge.africa/.

Clockwise: Stefaan Verhulst (The GovLab), Chinwe Ochu (Nigeria Centre for Disease Control), Francis Obare Onyango (Population Council, Kenya)

The COVID-19 pandemic has had significant consequences across Africa. Various countries face rising cases, a surge in variants, and a lack of access to vaccines. They also need to handle issues related to individual knowledge of the pandemic and public perception of protective behaviors. These challenges require innovative approaches, innovative approaches that rely on data innovation.

On Wednesday, July 14, 2021, The GovLab hosted a panel to discuss these issues in the context of the #Data4COVID19 Africa Challenge, a data challenge hosted by l’Agence française de développement (AFD), Expertise France, and The GovLab to support projects that use data to address COVID-19 and its consequences across Africa. Titled How are African countries using data to address the COVID-19 Pandemic? Early Reflections from the #Data4COVID19 Africa Challenge, the event featured a discussion with two challenge participants:

  • Dr. Chinwe Ochu, Medical doctor and Public Health Specialist, Director, Prevention Programmes & Knowledge Management, the Nigeria Center for Disease Control; and
  • Dr. Francis Obare Onyango, Associate at the Population Council, Kenya.

Moderated by Stefaan Verhulst, Co-Founder and Chief Research and Development Officer of The GovLab, Dr. Francis Obare and Dr. Chinwe Ochu discussed the current state of the pandemic in Africa, the use of data in their respective regions, and how data can be used to combat the pandemic.

The Current State of COVID-19 in Africa

To open the panel, Stefaan Verhulst asked Drs. Chinwe Ochu and Francis Obare about the current state of COVID-19 in Kenya and Nigeria and how Africa differed from other places in terms of their pandemic response.

Dr. Ochu emphasized that, while the relative impact of the virus on Nigeria has changed over time, it did not conform to expectations. Various groups expected severe disruptions in early 2020 that did not manifest until much later.

“In Nigeria, we started with the first case in February last year and passed through the first wave. Initially, the cases were limited to those who were coming into the country from other countries because the primary source of the outbreak was not in Nigeria. Our public health response then focused more on limiting importation. What helped us slow down the spread was the proactive response of travel bans and lockdowns that happened quite early during the outbreak. We eventually got to a community transmission phase that led to the first peak which then came down with a lot of intensity of response, public health response.”

She attributed the initial success of pandemic management to quick response and data use to inform the response. The Nigerian government formed a presidential task force to coordinate response efforts to COVID-19 a few days after the first case of COVID-19 was detected in the country and used lessons learned from experiences with the lassa fever outbreak. With a surveillance outbreak response management and analysis system, the government could collect data for public health policy-making.

Dr. Obare added that the experience in Kenya was similar to that of Nigeria in terms of the trajectory of the pandemic and government response. Dr. Obare provided insights from a demographic perspective, noting that the elderly were the most vulnerable to the pandemic in terms of health and social consequences. School closures due to the pandemic also greatly affected young people, and more specifically, girls, with media reports indicating a rise in teenage pregnancies and domestic violence.

He also attributed Kenya’s relatively gradual community spread to the initial measures that were put in place by the government to control the pandemic.

“When the pandemic came, we took the opportunity to see how we can use the surveys we’ve been conducting to generate rapid evidence that informed government response […] The National Bureau of Statistics also started conducting rapid phone surveys to assess the socio-economic impact of the pandemic. All these have come in handy to inform the government response […] and making sure that accurate information about the pandemic is channeled out there,” said Dr. Obare.

Lessons Learned from the Use of Data to Combat the COVID-19 Pandemic

Next, Stefaan asked the panelists to explain the lessons learned and questions raised from the use of data in the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Ochu emphasized the value of data in helping leaders to understand the situation of people living through the crisis.

“We needed to understand the perceptions of the people that we are working with. Even the perceptions of different population groups, some of whom could be more vulnerable than others, we didn’t start with all the questions, but we kept asking questions as a follow up to questions that will have already been addressed, and as we observed the trend of events, more questions come up.”

Dr. Obare described how Kenya responded to new information as the nature of the pandemic evolved. He noted that the first question was to understand the nature of COVID-19. Understanding the disease then allowed the development of appropriate response, and questions were refined as new information emerged.

Once the nature of the health threat was understood, the focus shifted to understanding the people, how they responded to prevention measures, and what the effects of these measures were on different sub-groups of the population. Dr. Obare also noted how Kenya continuously used data to figure out ways to communicate these measures to the people.

“In the Kenyan case, for instance, even with the very limited information available, modeling the disease patterns has been key,” said Dr. Obare, “Modeling showed that there will be a peak in around March, April this year […], so you see the kind of role that modeling plays to help plan, basically, what we do [when there] will be a peak [and] what measures we need to put in place to make sure that we respond effectively. That’s also an important role that data plays.”

Misinformation and Distrust in Data Use

Following this discussion, Stefaan asked the panelists how their respective regions handled the issue of misinformation and distrust around data use and collection.

Dr. Ochu explained that she and her colleagues relied on trusted, reliable partners. She said, “we collaborated with statisticians and experts from universities, academia, and those that were really good at managing data, modeling and making sense out of the routine data that we collect.”

She also emphasized the importance of health information management. A good health management system that collects regular, standardized data can be used to inform public health actions.

Dr. Obare then explained how trust in data is promoted through processes and procedures aimed at reinforcing appropriate standards.

“In Kenya, we have systems for approving surveys, basically making sure that whatever studies we do go through scientific and ethical review. In emergency situations like COVID-19, there are options for expedited reviews […] Being aware that, okay, this study went through some systematic review before the data is generated to be released is a way of establishing trust.”

He went on to speak briefly about the importance of public communication.

“How we communicate [about data] is also key because I remember in the early days of the pandemic, people trusted more updates from the Minister [of Health] himself, than from anybody else. So, when the Minister is speaking, people have trust in what he’s saying and basically believe the numbers. So, the source of the information is also key in establishing trust, besides the process used to generate it.”

Work in the Context of the #Data4COVID19 Africa Challenge

Finally, Stefaan asked the panelists to talk about the work they are doing in the context of the #Data4COVID19 Africa Challenge.

Dr. Ochu outlined the plans of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control to understand the social, economic, and political factors that influence perception of COVID-19 and resulting behavior. She stated, “we want to look back at some of the datasets that we have to see what we can understand and what the facilitators and barriers to compliance are with the public health and social measures in the country.”

In a collaboration between the Nigeria Center of Disease Control and the College of Medicine, “we’ll be looking to address specific questions, the major questions, to look at social, economic and political factors that influence knowledge and perception of COVID-19 among Nigerians, and how such knowledge and perception shapes the population’s behavior and adherence to COVID-19 safety protocols.”

This work would help Nigeria respond to future outbreaks and help it promote public compliance with health and safety protocols.

Dr. Obare, meanwhile, described his research team’s work to examine perceptions of COVID-19 and vulnerability to it. He and his colleagues at the Population Council and Busara Center for Behavioral Economics hope to understand how perception affects “adoption of protective behaviors, referring not only to the normal ones known, like wearing face masks, keeping distance and washing hands, but also issues to do with vaccine acceptability because as we conducted more survey rounds, we added questions about vaccine accessibility.”

This research — relying on data science, machine learning, and non-traditional sources — could support better response measures.

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Although the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging, data can provide a way to better understand and address the crisis.

We hope you will remain engaged over the coming weeks to understand how researchers at Nigeria Center for Disease Control and Population Council, Kenya are working on these issues through the #Data4COVID19 Africa Challenge. Updates on their work and the work of our other teams will be posted on our website, https://datachallenge.africa/.

Data Stewards Network