COVID-19: Citizens’ data concerns in Africa

COVID-19: Citizens’ data concerns in Africa

By Timi Olubiyi

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) despite being a health issue, has continued to have high-impact and severity on economic, business, and lifestyle globally. It continues to reshape the ways of doing things and high disruptions across the remains across all sectors and countries. For a developing country like Nigeria and as obtainable in most African countries, the disruption level is higher, stern with fragile economies across the continent.

The majority of the African populace lacks palliative care and a reliable social welfare system; therefore, the socio-economic impact of the COVID-19 has been more severe on the continent. It is therefore recommended that concrete policy adoption be considered for management of national emergencies, humanitarian responses, reduction of the impact of current pandemic and the attendant looming economic recession. Returning to business of lack of a strong data management culture and lack of sound data for governance Post COVID-19 will only further retrogress the continent’s development and living of the over 1.2 billion population. In fact, solutions to social and economic problems are often inseparable from the data.

Broadly speaking with COVID-19, it appears the majority of African countries are in for a long marathon with the pandemic due to continued spike in the incidence numbers, heightened economic uncertainties and poor citizen data management. In Nigeria for instance the lockdown has been eased, despite low testing capacity, lack of strict adherence to the much-publicized guidelines of social distancing, use of face masks, and washing of hands.

The number of incidences keeps increasing daily and the country has crossed the 7,000-incidence figure as today. Consequently, flattening the curve or having a drop in the reported cases is still a mirage at least for now mainly because lack of effective data driven decision. Therefore, measures to preserve the livelihoods of workers and businesses and ensure they get by conveniently during this period is vital. This is supported by the World Bank stipulation in their 2005 report, that recommends that countries should design, finance and deliver social welfare accordingly with data management system.

Additionally, the lesson to learn from the harrowing experience of the pandemic in Africa so far is the lack of preparedness social protection initiatives’ and essential planning. The methodology to adopt as part of the Post-COVID-19 recovery policy and national development is for the countries to introduce a data-driven economy and effective national data management platform. In my opinion, data is a developmental infrastructure that can provide critical insights into the trend of human actions, practices, behaviors, and social impacts. Government cannot improve on school infrastructures without adequately knowing how many children need to be enrolled. Foreign investors and global companies will be able to create a strong and measurable business strategy that will lead to business growth in Africa with reliable data.

Therefore, when citizen data management is properly earnest, it holds tremendous potential to stimulate economic growth and measurable development. In most African countries’ individuals are typically born, grow, live through adulthood, retire, aged and die without the governments knowing or being aware of their existence. This happen more in the remote villages and more within the informal sectors. Noticeably, due to lack of political will, successive governments and heads of nations in these African countries have ignored the lingering need for a data management system to improve political, societal, and economic development landscape.

The process of capturing and storing of citizen information backed with a data protection Bill in the National Assemblies is highly desirable and seemingly necessary. This national database can be used for so many verifiable and evidence-based statistics, evaluations, and a lot of inferences can be derived from it. At this point Post COVID-19 has presented an opportunity, which is the creation of a national database in these African countries. It is highly desirable and the benefits outweigh the costs meaningfully. When a national database is in place it can be accessed, analyzed and contact tracing can be made a lot easier.

Agreeably, it can help in a variety of other ways, such as public service improvement, designing of policies, public health development, public safety, national security, national development, and poverty reduction. It can also help in developing empirically-proven techniques for fostering human and capital development. No nation attains sustainable economic growth without developing a national database necessary to drive such growth. The national database methodology is a less expensive option to performing physical census because it is a register-based census.
In light of the many African nation’s desire for accelerated economic growth, a national database is necessary as part of the Post-COVID-19 policy priority. Nevertheless, if it is open, integrated, unified and harmonized amongst all the tires of government it will be an enabler for transparency and accountability, as well as reduce crime and criminality in Africa.

A low number of African countries including South Africa, Namibia, Mauritius and Lesotho have some form of social package much can still be achieved in education and health which are two widely acclaimed barometers used to measure economic growth. The citizenry should be catered for especially the vulnerable, through an adequate social welfare system. The COVID-19 experience exposed this inadequacy in Africa and this can be corrected easily by initiating and achieving an acceptable national database in each country. From adequately capturing birth registration, education, adulthood, citizens in diaspora, retirees, to the closure by death registration, the citizenry must be known, captured, and catered for adequately in African.

Social welfare protection, in the form of insurance and assistance programmes, emerged in Europe in the 1800s in order to provide citizens with an economic safety net during periods of illness, economic hardship, and other shocks driven by adequate data management. This is the 21st century Africa is still struggling, most of the major decision- makings or policies in western countries from the USA, Canada, Australia, and most European countries, these days are data-driven. For instance, the Canadian government announced COVID-19 aid in the form of a one-time payment of up to $500 for eligible seniors to offset any increased living expenses they have incurred as a result of the pandemic.

In the same vein, such government supports and economic stimuli are applicable in the USA and the UK to save jobs, businesses and to minimize the economic impacts of the pandemic. In Africa it has been a difficult task and the issue has been mainly due to the lack of adequate citizen information, thereby increasing economic hardship and poverty. Nonetheless the COVID-19 relief programs across Africa just go to show how far behind the continent is with data-driven economy and national database development, especially Nigeria. The vast majority of people in Africa are most vulnerable according to context observation, and many of the countries are still grappling to protect their citizens from the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Observation in Nigeria the biggest economy in Africa, indicated that millions of the citizens were expectant on palliative care and economic support promised by the government but logistic national data has been the bane. The lockdown could have been more effective with an efficient database and social welfare systems. The inability of the governments to provide these palliatives at the critical time has worsened the containment of the pandemic so far. Consequently, a national database is vital, it would provide insights into population demographics, unemployment rate, age distributions, births, deaths, mortality, marriages and infrastructure gaps.

It can also help in developing the right targeted policies to fix or alleviate, social issues such as corruption, inequality between wealthy and poor, level of education and rate of unemployment among others. Under international human rights law, Nigeria’s government has an obligation to protect people’s right to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food and nutrition, the highest attainable standard of health, and the right to social security. To conveniently achieve this all-important mission, agreeably a national database is required. In addition, to address the obligations especially the unemployment rate distribution across the country especially can be addressed, National data base is key and can help in a lot of national planning.

That said, the fertility rate in Nigeria is very high with a population forecast of 400m by 2050 according to reliable data from Worldometer. Tackling poverty in the land and reducing the high rate of unemployment has only received low attention by the successive government based on historical trends. With a national database in place, enactment of specific, and targeted policies to improve the lives of its citizens and its economy can be easily achieved.

Recall, the Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Disaster Management, and Social Development in Nigeria, Ms. Sadiya Farouq, expressed recently that her Ministry was tasked with the responsibility to address some of the underlying causes, drivers and consequences of humanitarian crises and underdevelopment including COVID-19 impact management in the country. She said this included the management of the relatively high level of poverty nearly half (90 million) of the country’s 200 million population. Further to this, the President of the country Rtd General Muhammadu Buhari directed the Humanitarian Affairs Ministry to also develop a strategy to maintain the school feeding social program during the lockdown.

These tasks appear to be difficult to achieve in Nigeria, especially with identifying and reaching out to the very vulnerable citizens amongst the over 200m populace. One of the significant reasons has been due to the lack of a reliable, verifiable, harmonized and efficient national database. Though the Bank Verification Number (BVN) database exists in Nigeria, it is just about 25 percent of the population only that have bank accounts. Meaning a large number of the population or the most vulnerable are unbanked. In addition, only 42 million of the 200 million population are captured in the country’s National Identity Database, the National Identity Management Commission (NIMC) according to the Director-General of NIMC, Aliyu Aziz.

The DG further asserts that the enrolment of people into the National identity Database, the commission was only able to successfully harmonize 14 million Bank Verification Numbers (BVN) with National Identity Numbers (NIN) nationwide. Consequently, a broader, consolidated and harmonized national data management platform is necessary, which is in line with the global best practice of data management devoid of any preference. Such a national database can also benefit from periodic reviews and research to guarantee relevance, reliability, and utility at any time.

Significant to note, most of the development and decisions in the world economies are data-driven, the pandemic has presented an opportunity to the public sectors in Africa to embrace technology and data management system to aid national planning effectively. With no enough infrastructures to manage the level of population growth in Africa, the infrastructures are likely to be overstretched without a reliable data driven decision-making system, projections, and technological development. The effects of lack of this key decision-making tool are unimaginable, and the continued suffering of the majority of the population in Africa are likely to continue without it.

Hence, with a good grasp of the relevant citizen data, demographics and information, governments in Africa will be in an excellent position to drive a digital economy and also formulate enabling developmental policies. They will also be able to measure the impact of these policies and also get aids when required from agencies like The World Bank(WB), The UK Department for International Development (DFID), The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), World Trade Organization (WTO),World Health Organization (WHO),International Monetary Fund (IMF), United Nation(UN) and its agencies among others.


Dr Olubiyi holds aPh.D. in Entrepreneur and Small Business Management.

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