Data is essential to navigating an era of pandemics

 September 14, 2023
A rebranded data analytics initiative by CGD and UNDP to support equitable pandemic preparedness and protection

COVID-19 is fading from public discussion, countries’ investments in health are in retreat, and hopes for a safer and fairer future are being dashed by potentially watered-down political commitments. Yet people around the world continue to feel the impacts of COVID-19 every day, other infectious disease threats have not magically gone away, and the next pandemic is nearer than we’d like to think.

Consider that, more than three years on, COVID-19 remains the third leading cause of death (over the week prior to this post). COVID-19 has claimed close to 4 million lives in the past 12 months and continues to disrupt the health and development landscape. In the wake of the pandemic, countries and communities are enduring economic downturns alongside cost-of-living and debt crises. This has put a stranglehold on health and development financing, including to prevent, prepare for, and respond to future pandemics.

These effects are not being felt equally. Some of the highest and more persistent spikes in excess deaths are in developing countries,  home to the vast majority of people unvaccinated against COVID-19, and where health systems are typically less resilient to shocks (Figure 1).  

At the same time, the world is yet to fully face another harsh truth: the next pandemic is coming, whether we are ready for it or not. Recent modeling forecasts a 47-57% chance of another pandemic akin to COVID-19 in the next 25 years. Climate change, continued urbanization and, more generally, the way humans interact with nature are all exacerbating pandemic risks.

We have all freshly borne witness to how a novel virus can exploit a lack of preparedness to upend lives and livelihoods. Efforts in understanding and responding to COVID-19 must ultimately be building blocks of a world more capable of tackling any and all infectious disease threats of pandemic potential in an equitable way. That means analyzing, not just COVID-19 trends, but also what future pandemics might look like, and figuring out how we can connect the dots to better prepare and protect everyone, equally.

Reliable data and actionable insights

To drive these insights and generate the political will necessary for sustained investment and action, we first need good, actionable data.

For instance, data on all-cause excess mortality and other vital statistics to support adequate surveillance efforts are sparsely available, with fewer than half of all countries providing regular information. This means that capturing the true toll of COVID-19 has been difficult. Data on pandemic risk and financing are also grossly insufficient, especially for preparedness.

Enter Pandem-ic, which started as a passion project of Philip Schellekens and has become an authoritative source of data and insights on pandemic inequities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pandem-ic has focused on inequalities across countries (hence, the “ic” suffix) with respect to pandemic severity, the Omicron escalation, and global vaccine equity. Underpinning these themes is a commitment to tracking inequalities and uncovering struggles that would otherwise remain under the radar, as with excess mortality for example (Figure 2).

Philip has now donated Pandem-ic to the Center for Global Development (CGD) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and will remain in an advisory role. CGD and UNDP are delighted to partner on the next phase of Pandem-ic. By leveraging the cutting edge of data analytics, we will expand beyond COVID-19 to provide actionable insights on global health equity across infectious disease threats of pandemic potential, including how to move evidence and data into action and policy.

Pandem-ic is a collective effort focused on dissecting inequalities by providing accessible and relevant data with dynamic visualizations, policy insights and recommendations that help make sense of where we are and how to move forward. All website visitors are free to browse the data, insights, and articles to explore these topics further and understand how we might better – and more equitably – address the pandemics of the future.

Commitment to equity

Even the best data is not enough to save us without a substantive commitment to equity. How is data being generated? Who is that data being shared with? Are countries equally equipped to act on the insights generated by that data?

Monitoring and evaluation tools for emerging outbreaks at the global level, for instance, have been constrained by “top-down approaches, inadequate financing, and inequalities between countries that have limited their ability to evaluate country preparedness comprehensively.” As such, past experiences show that even the current understanding of pandemic preparedness could be skewed toward high-income country experiences, limiting the effectiveness and adaptability of data-driven interventions.

Our promise is that Pandem-ic will remain the converse of that. Above all, it will contribute to a more robust understanding of what pandemic preparedness and response means and requires for countries at all development levels.

If the “post-COVID” picture of the world has taught us anything, it is that “post” is a relative description. As the G20 High-Level Independent Panel on Financing the Global Commons for Pandemic Preparedness and Response clearly stated, we are in an era of pandemics and that will not change anytime soon.

What we can change, however, is how we improve global cooperation and choose to learn from the past – how we generate, share, and act on quality data to prepare for, and respond to health threats and save lives.

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Note:  Mandeep Dhaliwal is Director of the HIV and Health Group at UNDP. Javier Guzman is Director of Global Health Policy at CGD. Philip Schellekens is Chief Economist for Asia and the Pacific at UNDP, Non-Resident Fellow at CGD and creator of Pandem-ic. The authors are grateful to Victoria Fan, Roy Small and Sara Viglione.

Disclaimer: Posts by the Center for Global Development reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions. Likewise, views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations, the United Nations Development Programme, its programmes/projects or governments.  The designations employed do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area, or its frontiers or boundaries.