COVID-19 shows the need for robust, reliable population data

“Demographers have an essential role in helping the public better understand and interpret the statistics being thrown at us in our data-driven world,” says Jessica Ho.

Assistant Professor Jessica Y. Ho
Assistant Professor Jessica Y. Ho

To properly tackle COVID-19 and other serious health issues, having access to robust and accurate data free from political influence is crucial, says demographer and USC Leonard Davis Assistant Professor of Gerontology Jessica Y. Ho.

In an essay published in Population and Development Review, Ho discussed how the pandemic has brought into sharp focus the need for demographers to have access to high quality statistics as well as the challenges that must be overcome.

Many nations, especially lower- and middle-income nations, still struggle to capture vital registration data for all citizens, which presents substantial challenges for population health researchers. However, data quality issues are not restricted to developing countries, Ho adds.

“High-income countries with longstanding vital registration systems have also struggled to provide adequate information to assess the dimensions and impacts of the pandemic,” she writes. “In the United States, there has been a lamentable paucity of [COVID-19] data by race/ethnicity and at finer geographic levels available to researchers and to the public. These limitations, along with the slow release of these data, have greatly hampered our ability to derive precise estimates of the pandemic’s outsized impact on disadvantaged populations and to compare how we are faring relative to other countries.”

Another major challenge is the amount of time it takes for comprehensive data on numbers and causes of deaths to become available. It often takes years to assemble a full picture of mortality in a given year, greatly hampering response to any new threats, Ho says.

“COVID-19 has revealed how dangerous this lack of timely information can be when facing a new and fast-developing threat,” she writes. “It also means that we are years behind in discovering other important phenomena including life expectancy declines, stalled progress in reducing cardiovascular disease mortality, and the direction of the contemporary American drug overdose epidemic.”

In addition, because such statistics play a huge part in shaping public policy, improper political pressure to skew or suppress data in support of an agenda must be constantly defended against, she adds.

“Around the world, data are being delayed, distorted, and marshaled in support of political agenda precisely because they are so valuable,” she writes. “Our data collection systems for births, deaths, and migration are too important—too vital, as their name suggests—to be subverted by political interference and underinvestment.”

Ho states that demographers have the responsibility to investigate threats from a population health perspective, even as much of the conversation revolves around risk factors at the individual level. While someone’s socioeconomic status and health history are influential factors, the likelihood that a given individual in the global population contracts and/or dies from COVID-19 also has much to do with their country’s response to the pandemic, she says.

“A poor person in a high-income country with poor handling of the pandemic may have an astronomically higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 than a poor person in a lower-income country that has implemented an effective response,” Ho writes. “It is important to understand the individual characteristics that put people at risk of dying from COVID-19. It is equally important to understand the factors that have safeguarded the health and well-being of entire national populations. Even if some of these conditions cannot be replicated in other contexts, if we don’t ask the right questions, we won’t get complete answers.”

To read the full essay, click here.