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The value of monitoring systems in times of a Pandemic

- Ayabulela Dlakavu (M&E Technical Specialist); Takunda J. Chirau (Senior M&E Technical Specialist); and Banele Masilela (Researcher)

A year since the globalisation of the novel coronavirus, widely known as COVID-19, countries are battling to adapt to the different mutations of the virus and the concomitant changes it has brought to the world of work, schooling and social interaction. Governments have inevitably been compelled to enact regulations to limit Covid-19 infections and lockdowns have consequently become a norm for countries severely affected. The impact of the pandemic has been severe on social, economic, political and cultural life. Unemployment rates soared as companies closed shop and retrenched their staff; health care systems, both private and public, are overwhelmed by a greater number of infected people; and different professions are forced into the 21st century digital world of work.

The pandemic and its shock on global health, economic, social and cultural systems has underscored the foundational value of using evidence emanating from monitoring systems and research in the health, education and economic to respond to the multi-faceted challenges and risks presented by Covid-19. The significance of such evidence-generation systems cannot be underestimated particularly their contribution to decision making, shaping public opinion and responses to the pandemic. For instance, infections data from health systems informed the enactment of lockdown regulations and easing thereof. Similarly, socio-economic data from sector performance reports, household surveys and research informed government social security programs and stimulus packages to assist individuals in distress and ailing sectors of the economy.

 In the South African context, rising Covid-19 infection rates compelled the national government to invoke the Disaster Management Act of 2002, which constitutionally empowers the Executive to be agile in responding efficiently to global disasters such as the Novel Coronavirus. To manage this declared National State of Disaster, national and provincial governments established Coronavirus Command Councils constituted by advisors from various sectors and/or clusters (health, economic, security and education clusters), whose mandate was to monitor infection rates and socio-economic impacts thereof. The command councils used monitoring evidence from the health and socio-economic sectors to recommend the easing or tightening of lockdown regulations enacted in response to the dynamic Covid-19 pandemic, given the mutating nature of the virus.

Essentially the pandemic has also highlighted the transdisciplinary nature of governance, including the practice of monitoring. In contrast to functional monitoring systems, weak statistical systems and dysfunctional reporting systems have not provided real-time reliable data to allow governments to be agile, efficient and effective in their response to the multiple effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. For instance, a significant number of countries (including those in the Global North such as the United States of America, Britain and France) suffered from higher infection rates relative to others, partly on the basis of their failure to enact timely lockdowns in line with rising infections.  Such countries experienced higher morbidity and mortality relative to those who enacted timely lockdowns to prioritise lives over economic activity. However, it must also be noted that the relatively higher morbidity and mortality of Global North countries is also attributable to its aging populations, making them susceptible to relatively higher mortality compared to youthful populations in the Global South.

In sum, the global health pandemic has proven the worth of many professions, with the health profession and governance (including the practice of monitoring and use of evidence therefrom to inform government responses to Covid-19) being amongst the most pressured frontline professions tasked with a responsibility of responding to the devastating effects of Covid-19. What is to be examined post the pandemic is the performance of these professions when confronted by this unprecedented 21st century pandemic of monumental, cross-sectoral consequences. Lastly, the pandemic has highlighted the eternal value of monitoring as a real-time day-to-day activity that remains an apex implementation tool without which policy and program success is in jeopardy.