How to Use Data to Fight the COVID-19

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Rembrandt "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp" // Public domain

Wide access to data will allow for a better understanding of the mechanisms of virus transmission and progress in the fight against the epidemic. 

COVID-19 is a deadly danger for some people, but a large proportion of those infected do not experience any symptoms. Available mortality data show that the disease represents the greatest risk for the elderly and those suffering from other diseases.

Age differences among persons infected with the coronavirus is one of the sources of a large mortality disparity between countries. For this reason, the frequency of contact between younger and older people can be of great importance for mortality.

However, in each country the way the virus spreads may be different, so it is necessary to collect and analyze data for Poland as quickly as possible. Without detailed data it will be difficult to identify those most at risk and the most effective countermeasures.

The scale of the pandemic and its social consequences require a multidisciplinary research – not only by epidemiologists, but also by economists, sociologists, and big data specialists, among others. Access to data will allow for a better understanding of the mechanisms of virus transmission and progress in the fight against the epidemic.

We do not know how long the epidemic will last and whether it will recur or not, so it is important to enable public and private research centres to start working on organizational solutions that can protect the society more effectively against the virus – not only during the lockdown period but also afterwards.

The starting point can be the publication and daily updating of anonymized individual data about the tested persons (both positive and negative results) by the Ministry of Health. These data should be supplemented with basic, easily accessible socio-economic data (e.g. age/occupation/work in the health care system/the reason for taking the test/the contact with the infected person/the district where the person lives). 

Along with building up the capacity of the laboratories, carrying out appropriately developed serological tests (for the presence of antibodies) on random, analyzing representative groups of inhabitants is also worth considering.

Although at the moment the number of infected persons is probably so small that there will be no such persons in a randomly selected group, it is worth preparing for this eventuality in a situation of a prolonged pandemic.

The starting point could be the already existing regular surveys of Statistics Poland (e.g. Labour Force Survey LFS), which can also easily be scaled up for all of the European Union.

The example of South Korea shows that using a data-based approach could allow to switch away from the model of a nationwide lockdown restricting the freedom of residents. The release of more extensive data would potentially open the way to discoveries that are currently unpredictable.


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Marcin Zielinski
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