Can data help contain Covid-19

Can data help contain Covid-19
Can data help contain Covid-19

Data gathering and management can go a long way in mitigating the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Covid-19 continues to rampage across the globe. While it is not yet among modern history's deadliest pandemics-the 1918 “Spanish flu” killed more than 20 times as many, and the 1956-1958 “Asian flu” and 1968 “Hong Kong flu” each killed more-it may be the most economically devastating. Both Deutsche Bank and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta estimated that the US gross domestic product could shrink 40 per cent from March through June, effectively wiping out trillions of dollars of wealth.

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Whole sectors-airlines, tourism, and restaurants-will take a decade or more to recover. The World Bank calls the pandemic-related global recession to be the worst since World War II. South Asia has fared better than other regions, but migration and lockdowns in India will take their toll.

Busting some myths

Activists have seized upon the pandemic to push pet causes. English anthropologist Jane Goodall, for example, argued that Covid-19 was the “product of our unhealthy relationship with animals and the environment.” In the United States, social justice campaigners say that structural racism catalyses the pandemic. Neither claim, however, is true. Pandemics struck before Covid-19 and will strike in the future. There will always be mutations areas where man and animal cohabitate. Nor does racial disparity mean racism is at play. Sickle-cell anaemia disproportionately afflicts blacks, and Tay-Sachs Disease strikes Ashkenazi Jews. Genetic differences are fact, not constructs.

Still, whether in terms of health and economy, better data management would have mitigated consequences. Here, diplomats and scientists both must have a hard conversation with and about the People's Republic of China. The best time to avert a pandemic is early. African cities and shantytowns are densely populated, but early detection and rapid reaction have repeatedly allowed the international community to defeat Ebola outbreaks. First, with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002 and then with Covid-19, communist authorities in Beijing prioritised secrecy over public health. When whistleblowers revealed the extent of the outbreaks, rather than recognise that disease knows no politics, Chinese authorities pressured the World Health Organization (WHO) to cut Taiwan out for diplomatic reasons. Legally, China had no ground to do so; nothing in WHO's constitution prohibits work with Taiwan. Indeed, WHO helped Somaliland-an unrecognised State in the Horn of Africa-coordinate its Covid-19 response.

Need for accurate data

While Chinese obfuscation hindered both understanding of disease transmission and international coordination, the resulting scattershot approach offered benefit of comparison. industrialised countries like South Korea, New Zealand, Taiwan, and Germany succeeded with rapid testing and contact-tracing; Italy, Spain, and the United States initially failed. The results are clear in juxtaposed casualty statistics. Falsified statistics in China, Turkey, Pakistan, and Russia will likely undercut their recoveries, regardless of their self-congratulatory pronouncements.
As new cases decline there still is ample room for lessons learned. Political hysteria led to massive closures and irreparable harm in many countries. Schools closed. Stores shuttered. But, even with more than 110,000 deaths in the United States, more than 40,000 in the United Kingdom, and at least 8,000 in India, it is appears that fears were unfounded that Covid-19 deaths struck at random rather than afflicted those with pre-existing conditions-diabetes, obesity, or those with already diagnosed immune deficiencies. In suburban Washington, DC, for example, a day care for children of first responders and essential workers during the lockdown, produced no cases suggesting closing schools and isolating children was overkill.
Combing through this medical data will be the next step. Political polemic might make it more difficult but, given the lack of vaccine and the inevitability of future pandemics, it behoves the international community to use data so as to treat economies with a scalpel rather than an axe.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC.
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