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Embrace a data-driven approach to Covid-19 in Namibia

2020-04-27  Staff Reporter

Embrace a data-driven approach to Covid-19 in Namibia
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The global outbreak of the deadly novel coronavirus or Covid-19 has brought devastation to economies and healthcare systems across the world to their knees. In only three months of the pandemic, we have witnessed a staggering number of people losing their jobs and livelihoods globally. Namibia is no exception, nor will she be spared by the devastating effects of Covid-19. However, an informed approach based on evidence gathered through accurate and reliable data (facts and statistics collected through observations) can assist Namibia better manage, mitigate and contain the pandemic. Key to this is finding the right balance between economic activities and saving Namibian lives.

Like many of her peers across the African Continent, the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in Namibia remain relatively low at 16 positive results. This number is not surprising given the fact that since the first two cases were reported on 14 March 2020, a meagre 675 samples were tested for Covid-19 as of 25 April 2020. While the World Health Organisation (WHO) has strongly advised ‘testing, testing, testing’ as a central response to the pandemic, Namibia’s testing number is extremely low, which government attributes to the lack of local capacity to conduct tests. Moreover, the high cost involved in testing Covid-19 samples could be another reason for the slow pace of testing. To help the government manage the high testing cost, some have suggested the government compel medical aid funds to pay for Covid-19 tests. I believe this is a good suggestion as it will help the government channel the limited resources on conducting tests for those without medical aid, who constitute about 60% of the population.

Following the outbreak of the pandemic, the government has taken commendably swift measures: declaring a state of emergency, totally locking down the main economical regions of Erongo and Khomas, restricting large gatherings, closing pubs/bars and open markets nationwide, and preparing an economic stimulus plan in response to the financial fallout. However, due to ineffective lockdown in Erongo and Khomas on 14 April 2020, the lockdown was extended to 4 May 2020 and applied to all regions. Though sensible at first glance, the decision to extend the lockdown to the entire country was not based on empirical evidence and can, therefore, lead to detrimental effects on the livelihoods of people in regions without Covid-19 cases.

While the lives of Namibians are important, so are their livelihoods. The lack of economic activities especially in the informal economy that provides income or social safety nets for the masses will affect the lives and relatedly the health of many. A recent study by Janke et al. (2020) on the impact of Covi-19 on chronic health in the UK predicted that a 5% fall in the employment rate will result in a 7-10% increase in chronic conditions among the working-age population. This demonstrates the need to find the right balance to protect the economy while ensuring that the health ministry is well equipped to handle other health challenges that will emerge or be worsened as the result of this pandemic. 

In addition, the extension of the lockdown to the entire country can only serve as a temporary measure to help the government buy time and slow down the local transmission of the disease. For the lockdown measures to be effective, new tools to gather data about Covid-19 in near real-time and rapid testing are crucial. As these will help the government identify the pandemic hotspots, carry out contact tracing and enable policymakers to adopt policies using new, reliable data to help control the pandemic. The on-going hackathon, NamibiaHacksCovid-19, is a great initiative to facilitate the rapid prototype of possible data-driven solutions that can aid the government in the fight against Covid-19. The WHO has cautioned countries not to lift lockdown measures without careful planning as this is likely to lead to an amplified second wave of Covid-19 cases. Thus, it is important for Namibia to accelerate testing and ensure that at least 1% of the population is tested before the lockdown expires on 4th May 2020; 1% represents approximately 25 000 people. If 25 000 individuals are tested for the virus, this could provide useful information to the Government on the number of infections in Namibia. Additionally, such data can be used to identify regions where lockdown measures are needed and regions where measures need to be relaxed to allow economic activities to continue and schools to be reopened.

In conclusion, national unity and global solidarity are vital for long-term success against Covid-19. Furthermore, as the world seeks, wait for clinical interventions such as effective therapies and a vaccine, it is just as important that leaders uphold public trust and confidence. This can be achieved through exemplary leadership and actions such as taking social distancing seriously, using data to inform policies, and communicating changes to policies to the public.

•Lameck Mbangula Amugongo is a lecturer of Computer Science at NUST and a PhD candidate at the University of Manchester, UK. He holds a BSc.IT, BSc (Hons) and a Master’s of Science degree in Computer Science, and is a Mandela Washington Fellow (2017). The views expressed are his own.

2020-04-27  Staff Reporter

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