An initiative to strengthen Africa’s ability to create and use data to tackle the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has been launched. The move, according Vera Songwe, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) executive secretary, will train and build capacity for data analytics and visualisation and to increase collaborative access to relevant data across the continent.
The COVID-19: Data for a resilient Africa initiative launched through a webinar on 20 April 2020 will also use modern information technology and connectivity to promoter data sharing and mobilise financial resources for the creation of a robust database on the disease in Africa.
Oliver Chinganya, director, African Centre for Statistics at the ECA, said during the webinar launch that the initiative will address key data issues in Africa’s health system including determining the most vulnerable populations, knowing the locations of health facilities, staffing and connectivity to key necessities such as electricity.
“Critical gaps in coverage and timeliness can leave governments uncertain of where the risks of infection are highest.” Vera Songwe, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa
They will also focus on virus tracking and monitoring economic impacts of the pandemic including how curfews and lockdowns are impacting food systems, agricultural production and businesses.
Africa’s data systems are fragile and inadequate to inform decisions, making the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic challenging, they said.
According to the World Health Organization, sound and reliable information is the basis of decision-making across health system blocks, is essential for policy development and application, governance and regulation, health education, training and research, human resources development, service delivery and financing.
A recent report says that data coverage on health facilities and health outcomes in Africa is often poor, characterised by inadequacies such as lack of funding and statistical capacity to obtaining quality health data, thus limiting the production of data essential in health emergencies.
The specialists from the initiative partners ECA and the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD) said during the launch that data is critical for the success of efforts such as identification of hotspots and deployment of rapid responses during the pandemic.
“Critical gaps in coverage and timeliness can leave governments uncertain of where the risks of infection are highest and how to deploy resources in the most effective way,” said Songwe.
Songwe and Chinganya concurred that the initiative will be working with governments, donors, the private sector, civil society and higher education institutions in Africa.
Geo-Referenced Infrastructure and Demographic Data for Development (GRID3), one of the partners of the initiative, is already providing technical assistance to produce spatial data on population, settlements and health infrastructure to aid decision-making in Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and Zambia, with plans to expand to ten more African countries.
Chinganya explained that the initiative has several strategies such as “earth observations for monitoring and early warning systems, social media analysis for public engagement and curbing fake news, software applications for case management and contact tracing, citizen-generated data for symptom reporting and virus tracking”.
Songwe said that data will also be used to hold leaders accountable, especially on how funds are used.
The COVID-19 pandemic is already wreaking havoc with thousands of lives lost globally and the vulnerability of low-income countries is alarming, added Claire Melamed, GPSDD chief executive.
“Getting timely, accurate data to get the pandemic under control in Africa is critical for the success of global efforts and in building strong data systems for the long-term,” Melamed explained. She told SciDev.Net that the initiative will ensure that citizen data is protected, and consent given where necessary.
Philip Thigo, technical advisor on data innovations at the Office of the Deputy President, Kenya, tells SciDev.Net that the pandemic is showing Africa that the new normal will be enshrined in digital sharing of information globally to address problems facing humanity.
However, Emmanuel Kweyu, deputy director and eHealth projects team leader at Strathmore University’s ilab said that while the objectives and intentions of the initiative look noble and good, “there are no clear practical deliverables to respective countries with respect to responding to COVID -19.”
Rather than a top-down approach from the Africa Union and all the coordination partners, Kweyu tells SciDev.Net that a more beneficial way would be to have a look at what is already on the ground in respective countries and try to support them.