April 1, 2020

Opinion

How think tanks can support the COVID-19 response through survey data

Part 3 of  
COVID-19

COVID-19 is likely to be the largest challenge the world has faced since the Second World War. In the last two weeks, unemployment claims in the US have exceeded the highest number recorded during the great recession. And the virus is expanding at an exponential rate. While some governments have responded in a generally effective manner (for example Georgia), many have been laggards in their response.

Just as think tanks played a critical role in the aftermath of the Second World War, they too can play a role in supporting governments through and after the present crisis. Providing accurate, timely, and actionable quantitative research is one such way that think tanks could provide immediate support to response efforts. While John Hopkins University is mapping COVID-19 data to enable an understanding of the virus’s spread, there is a clear need for data on a wide array of other issues.


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Here I run through some of the main challenges and areas in which governments will need data to inform their response, and share a research proposal concept note, in the hope that it will support other think tanks to develop their own proposals and work towards better-informed solutions faster.

Social measures to contain the virus

At present, the main challenge facing the world is containing the virus. While this is a medical phenomenon, it is also clearly a social one. Indeed, social distancing and self-isolation are the key strategies being promoted at the moment. For these to be effective, however, compliance is critical. Public opinion polls have the potential to not only estimate levels of awareness of important practices, but also which groups are more or less likely to comply with them. With this public opinion data, government efforts can be more targeted at encouraging social distancing and isolation among different groups.

Economic consequences

The economic downturn is the second major issue the world faces. With all but essential businesses shutting down in many countries, and lower consumer demand across a wide range of sectors even if businesses remain open, the world is clearly headed for recession. But how many people have lost jobs? And in which sectors? Which regions have been hardest hit? Again, public opinion polls can provide estimates for all of these.

Governments traditionally rely on large samples of face to face interviews for economic statistics. This means that economic data is unlikely to be forthcoming in the near future. In its place, telephone surveys have the potential to provide a reasonably accurate understanding of how many people are out of work or facing issues around food security, among other economic issues.

Cross-cutting issues

Aside from containing the virus and the economic collapse directly, polling has the potential to address a wide range of cross-cutting issues, from gender divisions in care work to Russian propaganda.

For example, around the world, women do a disproportionate amount of unpaid care work. With children home from school, the increased levels of care work may mean that the crisis impacts women more than men along some domains. Surveys can measure these and help inform policy efforts to alleviate these impacts.

Disinformation or propaganda is another key issue with important implications during the crisis. To take an example from Georgia, Russia has long spread propaganda in the country about the Lugar Lab, suggesting that it is a biological weapon development centre. The Lab has played a critical role in Georgia’s response to the virus. Opinion polls can enable an immediate understanding of how propaganda is spreading and inform messaging efforts against Russian propaganda.

An example survey research data concept note

Clearly, surveys have the potential to inform a wide array of policies. Indeed, in places like the UK, the Government has already commissioned them to inform response efforts. However, developing countries are less likely to be able to afford or have experience in polling in response measures. Given this, donors need to step up now more than ever to enable a strong response.

In support of helping think tanks do just this, here is CRRC-Georgia’s concept note for survey data collection to inform the COVID-19 response in Georgia. Although, at the time of writing, we have not received funding (if you want to fund something like this, do get in touch), we felt that this proposal might help other organisations to rapidly create their own proposals, in turn cutting down the time between proposals and funding being delivered to enable effective response. Response time aside, we hope sharing the proposal will encourage potential collaboration and learning from each other (we’d be happy to hear others thoughts on this).

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of CRRC Georgia or any related entity.

About the author:

Dustin Gilbreath:  Deputy research director at CRRC Georgia and communications manager at Transparify.

Read more from: Dustin Gilbreath

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