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Six United Nations statistical offices work together to support countries in managing the COVID-19 pandemic

Published: 16 June 2020

As the world tackles the spread of COVID-19 and its unprecedented impacts on economies, societies and the environment, we are all stepping into unknown territory. Everybody, from politicians to parents, from newly unemployed workers to nurses, from supermarket cashiers to schoolchildren in front of computer screens, faces great uncertainty. But not everything is unknown. We can arm ourselves with facts to navigate through this uncertainty, guiding decisions and informing plans.

National Statistical Offices (NSOs) and other producers of official statistics are a key source of such facts. Against the onslaught of data from all kinds of sources, official statistics bear the hallmarks of accuracy, reliability, independence, transparency and rigour that make them trustworthy. And now more than ever official statistics have a crucial role to play to ensure that major, life-changing decisions are based on the best available information. When human lives are at stake it is essential to have sound evidence to protect them. Good data literally saves lives. The Statistics Divisions of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), the Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), the Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (UNESCWA), the Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), Economic and Social Comimssion for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) and Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) are united in their efforts to support NSOs to keep on producing such information. NSOs are under great pressure, both to keep producing the usual statistics upon which we depend on a daily basis, such as employment, prices and inflation, births and deaths, and to provide new and rapid information on matters directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many NSOs need support to develop very quickly the new skills and competencies required of their staff to deal with sudden and unprecedented challenges, including using new methods to collect, process and analyze data while working from home. To find out more about these urgent needs, the Statistics Division of UN DESA (UNSD) and the World Bank’s Development Data Group, in cooperation with the Statistical Divisions of the five United Nations Regional Commissions, conducted a global survey on the state of statistical operations under the COVID-19 Pandemic . The information gathered will help to better understand disruptions in national statistical activities in order to take effective mitigation actions and to guide the planning for longer-term support provided by donors and the global data and statistics community.

A dedicated website launched by the UNSD in collaboration with partners from civil society and the private sector showcases the official statistics community’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Supporting countries to join a federated network of COVID-19 data hubs, UNSD is promoting the value of sharing open data resources in an interoperable web-GIS environment.

Meanwhile around the world, each regional commission is supporting the NSOs of its member countries in a range of ways to respond to the pandemic and the statistical challenges it brings.

In the UNECE region, covering Europe, North America and Western Asia, encompassing many of the countries currently worst hit by the crisis, a dynamic wiki-based platform is enabling statisticians to share experiences in all domains of statistics, such as economic, social and demographic, as well as gathering country case studies of responses to the disaster.

In the Western Asia region, a survey of member countries’ NSOs revealed large impacts on field work and dissemination.

In Africa, a similar quick assessment of NSOs in the region is informing responses, including an online seminar on data collection for consumer price indices during the pandemic, a conference to assess the impact of COVID-19 on civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS), and an enhanced focus on non-traditional data sources and digital technology.

The Asia and the Pacific region has launched a dedicated COVID-19 policy response website, a Stats Café series, guidance notes on various topics (including geospatially-enabled population estimates and conducting surveys under lockdown), and a virtual Asia-Pacific Statistics Week conference, and is now developing plans for this year’s Asia-Pacific Committee on Statistics in light of the COVID-19 crisis.

Initiatives in Latin America and the Caribbean include a regional COVID-19 observatory, a website on contingency plans and recommendations for statistical production, (which includes, among other content, 12 online seminars on the impact on different statistical products), and a seminar on geospatial responses to the crisis, as well as guidance notes on producing price indices, conducting household surveys, treating selection bias and the compilation of national accounts during lockdowns.

The global official statistics community, like many other sectors, is facing challenges that are unprecedented—but statisticians are prepared. In recent years, the UN has developed tools to better define the roles of National Statistical Systems in managing disaster risk and in producing the necessary statistics, such as the UNECE Conference of European StatisticiansRecommendations on the Role of Official Statistics in Measuring Hazardous Events and Disasters and the Asia-Pacific Disaster-related Statistics Framework. The current COVID-19 disaster calls all NSOs to put this guidance into practice, while learning from the current challenges to ensure they are better prepared for future crises. By gathering and disseminating the experiences of National Statisticsl Systems across the world as they respond and adapt to the challenges of the pandemic, the UN is facilitating the sharing of new insights and helping all countries draw lessons from one-another’s successes and shortcomings.

The pandemic follows different trajectories in each world region, and there are important differences in development of statistical systems across the world. Yet, many of the challenges are shared by all, which makes a coordinated response crucially important. The statistical offices of the Department of Social and Economic Affairs and the five Regional Commissions are therefore working together to live up to the name of the United Nations, uniting behind the need for facts to guide us all out of this pandemic and beyond.


United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

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