Why the world counts on honest stats in a pandemic

Public demand for transparency in data about all things COVID-19 has pushed institutions and countries to new levels of accountability.

Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Department of Arizona Health Services, leave a July 9 news conference after speaking about the latest coronavirus statistics.

Compared with other events in history, the COVID-19 pandemic may be the one that has been the most widely scrutinized in the shortest span of time. People are hungry for data about the virus’s origins, effects, and remedies. “It’s only in moments of crisis that we begin to pay attention [to data],” writes Arunabh Ghosh, a Harvard professor and author of a new book about statistics in China.

Yet this hunger for information has also led to a demand for honesty and transparency in the data collected and used by authorities. Can test trials for a new vaccine be trusted? Is my employer flying blind on safety data in reopening the workplace? Bad data can lead to panic or a false sense of security. In short, people expect accurate analysis of both the threat and the solutions to help lessen their fear of vulnerability.

“It is in moments of disaster response and relief that the values of open government can come under intense pressure, but can also meaningfully contribute to better outcomes,” states the international group Open Government Partnership.

Around the world, officials are on notice to be more forthcoming as the pandemic endures. In a few places, such as Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea, leaders have been praised for their transparency during the crisis. In China, officials from the World Health Organization arrived in Wuhan July 13 to start an investigation of COVID-19’s origins. Beijing has suppressed many of those who have challenged its changing narratives about the virus’s beginnings. To rebuild lost trust, China can grant unfettered access for the WHO and other international investigators.

In the United States, President Donald Trump has been criticized for a July 10 decision to set up a “coronavirus data hub” in the Department of Health and Human Services. It would replace data collection by the more respected Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unease about the federal reporting structure – as well as Mr. Trump’s leadership in general – has put pressure on states to improve their data.

A July 21 report from Resolve to Save Lives, a nonprofit led by former CDC chief Tom Frieden, found states largely failing in collecting and publishing data on 15 “essential indicators” of COVID-19. For nine of the 15 indicators, more than half of states were not reporting at all. Yet another study by The COVID Tracking Project found on the whole, the quality of state data across 16 metrics “has improved dramatically.” The median grade for states has gone from B to A over the past three months.

Public demand for data is driving a new accountability in institutions. Honesty is a powerful disinfectant against the virus. It helps garner support during the long struggle against COVID-19. The people and their leaders must be partners in truth telling.

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