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RIGHTS IN CRISIS:
COVID 19, Data for Decision Making and Action

By Rumbidzai Moyo
On 16 July 2020, ZimRights launched a special report ‘Rights in crisis: A Human Rights Analysis of the COVID 19 Pandemic in Zimbabwe’. The report which is the most comprehensive appraisal of the local COVID-19 situation introduces a ‘Pro-future approach’ based on the UN Secretary General’s Policy Brief on Human Rights and COVID 19 in which he stated as follows:

“In what world do we want to live when this is all over? The way in which we respond now can help to shape that future - for better or for worse. We must ensure that we do not do harm while we focus on the immediate crisis. It is critical to consider the long term whilst planning our short-term responses. The crisis is revealing weaknesses in the way public services are delivered and inequalities that impede access to them. Human rights help us to respond to the immediate priorities and develop prevention strategies for the future, including our responsibilities to future generations.”

The report notes that Zimbabwe is in extraordinary times and it is important that its measures be grounded in pro-poor and pro-future approaches that build long-term resilience in communities.

Among the key recommendations to the government of Zimbabwe is the recommendation to invest in evidence and data collection.

The report states that policymakers should act based on the lived realities of communities and address the challenges faced by citizens. Evidence and data collection models contribute to understanding the experiences of particular groups and their needs. During this epidemic, threats are confronting various communities and vulnerable groups. In the absence of data and evidence, it is highly unlikely that the government of Zimbabwe will be able to meet the needs of these communities and address the threats and challenges that they are facing.

According to Covid-19 In Africa: A Call For Coordinated Governance, Improved Health Structures And Better Data , epidemics are a reality test for public governance and leadership, not only at country level but also at regional and continental levels, among African institutions and organizations, as well as in connection with the wider network of multilateral actors and partners. The article notes that the pandemic will widen inequalities within and between countries, worsen already existing fragilities, restrict employment and investment prospects, and potentially fuelling additional domestic unrest and conflicts.

There is an urgent need to provide data and analysis to support policy formulation and program design to prevent disruption to services and protect the livelihoods of affected populations. Decision-making needs to involve a fact-based approach including the gathering of valuable information to assess different options, whilst avoiding biased data usage and reactions based on nothing more than just a gut feeling. Data for decision-making aims to equip countries to implement timely and effective responses to the COVID-19 crisis and promote a swift recovery thereafter.

In defeating COVID-19, data is key. Without a vaccine, the only strategy, beside prevention, is test, trace, isolate and manage. Most economies have failed to shut down and are re-opening, creating perfect conditions for the spread of the pandemic. The testing and tracing become critical. How can this be done effectively without investing in data tools and knowledge? This was China’s most powerful tool in fighting COVID 19. Through its robust We Chat surveillance system, in a matter of minutes, the Chinese government know everyone you have met in the last hour and they can in a click of a button alert all your contacts that they are at risk. Data, coupled with a functioning health care system is a game changer against the virus, even without a vaccine. I know that the Chinese use of data crosses the lines and there is need to balance.

But the power of data for solutions goes beyond the short-term battles. The Rights in Crisis Report speaks of building resilient communities of the future. A critical pillar in that process is developing evidence-based knowledge systems. Data becomes key. Quality statistics are essential for all stages of evidence-based decision-making and policy formulation especially as it relates to healthcare in the present context of the COVID 19 pandemic.

There should, therefore as rightly observed in the ZimRights report be an effort to invest in evidence and data collection through community engagements. In compiling the Rights in Crisis Report, ZimRights benefitted a lot from its huge membership base, who remained engaged with Secretariat in real time, documenting key developments, sharing anxieties, fears and stories of hope. They formed Whats App groups and made sure to include as many as possible. With 250 000 members across the country, ZimRights experienced the power of data. What more can a government achieve with access to millions of its citizens. The government must know what the people are going through. This is not only a matter of knowledge. Communities actually generate solutions for themselves and others. Harvesting this knowledge is key to finding solutions and building resilience in communities.

Evidence and data collection can be enhanced by creating synergies with non-state actors such as academia and civil society organizations. In the United States of America, for instance, several states have developed innovative programs that feature collaboration between communities and nearby universities to aid in data-enriched decision-making, and their efforts are expected to be quickly adopted elsewhere. Data collection methods need to be urgently adapted and enhanced, as national data collection processes are disrupted by physical distancing measures to contain the pandemic. Face-to-face surveying is largely disrupted, and innovative collection methods are required to ensure timely and responsive data to meet the new demands of the pandemic. The capacity of national statistical systems and other data producers has been affected, and this could jeopardize the country’s ability to produce timely and accurate analysis to support effective policy formulation.

The experience in Zimbabwe as it is with most African countries is that data coverage on health facilities and health outcomes is low. This affects the capacity of the country to address healthcare challenges which would be hindered by a lack of data coverage, stemming from weak statistical capacity. Lack of funding and autonomy for National Statistics Offices (NSOs) means that they still have inadequate access to and use of data, are unable to use the latest statistical methodologies and have statistical knowledge gaps in metadata flow and data updating. This requires immediate attention and calls for adequate, coordinated responses.

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Rumbidzai Moyo is a member of the ZimRights Special Project Unit. She contributed to the Rights in Crisis Report as a Data Analyst. Comments to this article can be send to rumbidzai@zimrights.org.zw

Rumbidzai Moyo