Words of wisdom from COVID-19 experts around the world

Takeaways from the COVID-19 Government Response Tracker's guest speakers.

Estimated reading time: 9 Minutes
COVID vaccine test tube

Not everyone knows that behind the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker, there are hundreds of trained volunteers contributing from all around the world. They all meet virtually every Thursday for our regular 'check-in' call.  The purpose of these calls is to keep everyone informed and up-to-date, discuss interesting developments in policies around the world, and also give something back to the volunteers.

COVID vaccine test tube
Image by Wilfried Pohnke from Pixabay

During these calls, we hear directly from influential guest speakers, who present their expert perspectives on different elements of the COVID-19 pandemic. From the graphics editor for The New York Times, to the chief economist of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, our guest speakers give volunteer data collectors the opportunity to ask their most burning questions about the pandemic.

We’ve collected our top takeaways from these guest speakers so far.

“Female political leaders haven’t performed better than their male counterparts because they’re female, they’ve done better because of their leadership style” - Professor Ngaire Woods, Blavatnik School of Government

Professor Ngaire Woods, the founding Dean of the Blavatnik School, and expert in global economic institutions, global governance, and globalisation, was asked if she thought female leaders had done better in responding to the pandemic.

“I don’t think it’s about gender. I do think it’s about leadership style. People often say that women make better leaders than men, but there are also female leaders that have not done so well. It’s about the attributes of this group of female leaders who have done well, and it looks like a dose of humility and collaboration are absolutely vital to lead the way through this crisis.”

“The secondary impacts of COVID-19 will vastly dwarf and overshadow the primary impact of the pandemic itself in humanitarian settings” Dr Dirk-Jan Omtzigt, Chief Economist, UN OCHA

Dr Dirk-Jan Omtzigt is the Chief Economist at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). He says that we need to be proactive, rather than reactive, in ensuring that the impacts of the pandemic do not undo years of progress in humanitarian settings.

“Economies are hit by a significant drop in remittances sent from family members living overseas, a collapse in international tourism, a drop in international trade due to border restrictions and reduced demand, and falling primary commodity prices. As a result 2020 saw the broadest collapse in per capita incomes since 1870. The World Bank expects that by the end of 2021, real GDP per capita in sub-Saharan Africa will likely regress to the same level as 2007, and by the end of 2021 upto 163 mn people will have fallen into extreme poverty. The education of 1.6bn students was disrupted and deaths from malaria HIV and TB are expected to double due to disrupted service delivery. This results in three systemic risks: rising conflict risk, sovereign debt default risk and the risk of a credit crunch that could result in rising humanitarian need.”

“The pandemic will end, but gradually, as populations accumulate immunity” Dr Adam Kucharski, author and professor at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Dr Adam Kucharski, author of The Rules of Contagion, Associate Professor and Wellcome Trust Henry Dale Fellow at LSHTM, and one of the leading voices on COVID-19, when asked how the pandemic will end, said:

“I think gradually is one word. And in a lot of countries, it depends on what’s happening locally. But it’s going to end in accumulation of immunity, either through natural infections or – preferably – vaccines.”

“You have to be transparent to build confidence in data, anytime you’re not people think you’re hiding something” Sasha Anderson, USAFacts

Sasha Anderson from USAFacts, a non-partisan, not-for-profit organisation which provides data and information, said:

“People are going to be curious and critical and that’s a good thing. So you have to be extremely meticulous in your documentation of methodology, and how you’ve collected the information, so when people confront something that doesn’t look right, you can explain it to them. And that kind of transparency builds trust. You have to be transparent to build confidence in vaccines, anytime you’re not, people think you’re hiding something.

It can be dangerous when people use technical terms incorrectly in their arguments.” Dr Hannah Ritchie, Head of Research, Our World in Data

Our World In Data is a scientific online publication based at the Oxford Martin School and the Global Change Data Lab at the University of Oxford. They aim to present the best available research and data in an understandable and accessible way. Since the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker project began in early 2020, the Our World In Data team have published our data on the strength, timing, and duration of policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic using interactive and colourful map visualisations, in real time.

"One of the most striking examples of how data can be used to support two opposing sides of an argument was when the media broadcast the clip of Donald Trump waving an Our World In Data chart with the case fatality rate, to show that the USA was doing well in managing the pandemic. This is a clear example of misusing the data to make a specific point, and doing it deliberately because people don’t know what case fatality rate means, and reframing it as something else. The case fatality rate has been one of the most commonly misused phrases," says Hannah Ritchie.

[To clarify: in epidemiology, the case fatality rate measures the proportion of a population that die from a disease over a specific time. Case fatality rates may fall over time due to the proportion of cases being shared by more young adults who have less chance of dying, and as medical treatments improve over time. The case fatality rate is also based on confirmed cases and deaths, so depends on the extent of testing.]

"This past year has also been incredible for data every day there are data included on the front pages of the media. Data visualisation is critical in making data accessible to everyone, and Our World in Data aims to make colourful visualisations that people can explore, rather than difficult to access spreadsheets.”

Lauren Leatherby

“Like words, data visualisation can be manipulated to serve a purpose” Lauren Leatherby, graphics editor for The New York Times

How does a visual journalist ensure that data doesn’t mislead people?

“Data visualisation can also be biased, just like a text story that only shows one side. Like words, data visualisation can be manipulated to serve a purpose, and I think this is one of the more important things that I deal with: trying to make sure it is fair. I always talk with experts, people who have devoted their lives to their subject, to make sure that the story is correct and balanced before publishing it. We try to approach data visualisation with a lot of caution,” says Lauren Letherby.

Ambar Narayan

“The biggest economic effects of the pandemic in LMICs will not be directly caused by COVID-19 cases and deaths in those nations but by the global economic shock” Dr Ambar Narayan, Lead Economist at The World Bank

“We have big concerns about the reduction in social mobility in the long term, correlated with inequality, and caused by the pandemic. Education is a huge ladder to social mobility, and children worldwide are currently going through big learning loss, which is an iceberg we should be worried about. It's so silent, but it will manifest itself over time as children born in poor and vulnerable families fall further behind. Many children around the world are currently receiving no instruction from any teacher," said Dr Ambar Narayan.

"In African countries, the number of deaths and cases may not be closely correlated with the economic impact of COVID-19. The correlation in developing countries is much more complex than this. For example, cases may be low in African nations, but these countries have seen some of the worst economic impacts on households. This is because as a result of the economic impacts of factors such as a drop in trade, a drop in tourism, a drop in remittances, and pandemic mitigation measures meaning that people lose jobs and incomes. This is not to say controlling the infection is not important for economic effects, but more that we must remember that even if you see low numbers of cases and deaths, it doesn't mean the economy will be fine.”

Helen Tatlow is a Research Assistant for the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT). She is responsible for volunteer management, responding to technical queries, developing the codebook and new indicators, and related analysis.