During COVID-19, every government wanted information on what other countries were doing. Volunteers provided it from their bedrooms.

Thomas Hale argues that, with more pandemics ahead, nations shouldn’t rely on spontaneous volunteer efforts for mission-critical information.

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‘What are other countries doing?’

During the COVID-19 pandemic, this question was constantly asked behind closed doors by prime ministers and presidents as they faced the overwhelming task of deciding what to do in the face of a major crisis. The public, too, wanted to know, and looked to the media to tell them. 

Governments and journalists could – and did – use a database that systematically recorded and compared COVID-19 policies in every country, updated every day, right from the early days of the pandemic.

This wasn’t something the World Health Organization or the UN was providing. In fact, it started in a university class. In February and March 2020 the masters students in my ‘Politics of Policymaking’ class at Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government were debating the different responses they were seeing pop up in their home countries. With several dozen nationalities in the room, we quickly realised the value of rapid, evidence-based comparison. 

Within a few weeks, this classroom discussion became an open-source, real-time, volunteer-powered database available to anyone online. The Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker has, for the past three years, systematically followed the policy responses to COVID-19 of almost every country around the world – from masks, to lockdowns, to vaccines, and much more. In several countries it follows subnational jurisdictions too (the US states, for instance). It is a critical global public good that has allowed policymakers, researchers, and everyone to make sense of what governments have done (or not done), helping evaluate their effectiveness and inform strategy. 

At the start, however, we had no team, no data platform, and full day jobs teaching, studying, and researching. Even with the support of colleagues and leadership in the Blavatnik School – and a lot of free database design from my partner, who happened to be between jobs – it was a huge undertaking. Over time we recruited over 1,500 volunteers across almost every country in the world – an astonishing number of people giving up their spare time for free. And not for something easy, either: we trained them to do hard, detailed policy research and enter it scrupulously in the right format into the database every single week so the world had real-time information. Most of them had full-time day jobs, too.

Our project was hardly unique. From vaccination rates to counting cases, tests, and deaths, dozens of spontaneous volunteer systems sprang up to give the world the data it needed to fight COVID-19. The Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University provided data on case counts and was globally used to understand the disease’s prevalence at any one point in time. Aggregators like Our World in Data combined different data streams to facilitate analysis and decision-making. But there were few efforts, even by intergovernmental organisations, to link together a coherent whole – with epidemiological data, clinical data, behavioural data, and policy-related data – that countries could consult. The information ecosystem remained largely uncoordinated, and was primarily driven by groups independent of both national governments and international organisations.

Many of these efforts reflected the best of what public-spirited research collaboration and citizen science can deliver. But looking forward, do we really want to rely on ad hoc systems to face a threat that in the last three years has likely cost around 20 million human lives?

Three years after the WHO declared a COVID-19 pandemic, that is still what we are doing. We are in the midst of concurrent emerging epidemics of mpox, Marburg virus (in Equatorial Guinea), and bird flu (in Cambodia), each of which has pandemic potential. Meanwhile, astoundingly, global systems to prepare for and respond to pandemics remain roughly where they were in 2020. 
Among the many lessons countries are still not learning, perhaps the need for good quality sources of data is the most fundamental. How many cases are there, and what is their impact on people’s health? What are governments and societies doing in response, and with what effect? Without a robust data system to answer these basic questions, even the best health systems will fail.  

Our project was one of a few that emerged amidst the initial data void – all non-governmental.

The establishment of a lasting data infrastructure can and should be one positive legacy of COVID-19. In a recent scoping paper, my colleagues and I propose a data framework that can harness what we’ve learned and develop a ready-to-use template for collecting and organising data across topics during a global emergency. We hope multilaterals and governments will take up the baton we’re extending.

The need for data is persistent. The next crisis will come, and whatever form it takes, a functioning mechanism to analyse across datasets and data types will be paramount. Wider society – universities, volunteers – rightly plugged the gaps during COVID-19. Governments must not waste that work. 

Thomas Hale is a Professor in Public Policy at the Blavatnik School.

What would a data framework for policy responses to pandemic diseases look like? By Clare Wenham, Thomas Hale, Kaitlyn Green, Bernardo Andretti di Melo, Rodrigo Furst, Nadezhda Kamenkovich, Anna Petherick, Toby Philips

More information on the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker.

Join a public event about the Tracker online or in Oxford on Friday 24 March.