Researching the COVID-19 Pandemic: New Vistas and Data Limitations

Global crises lay bare the fault lines in our world system, and in this respect, COVID-19 is no different. Certain countries have been able to marshal significant financial resources to expand healthcare capacity. Other countries have found themselves confronted with cascading domestic crises only compounded by the limited number of response options available to them. As CoronaNet researchers, we saw this reality reflected in the data. As people with friends and family in the Middle East region, we knew of this reality firsthand.

Our research team consisted of six scholars with disciplinary expertise ranging from biophysics to economics, political science, and applied mathematics. Along with Seth Gulas, Nathan Ruhde, Daniel Mathew, and Nicholas Parente, we recently published an article titled “Dyadic Analysis of Fragile Middle Eastern States and Humanitarian Implications of Restrictive COVID-19 Policies” in the journal Middle East Law and Governance, which expands on many issues touched upon in this blog. What united us was our desire to understand how state fragility affected a country’s policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This research question, however, was complicated by a number of factors. The pandemic left our team of researchers holed up in confined living spaces with limited outside interaction. Friends were separated, research was put on hold, and loved ones were lost. But within the confines of our own homes, we set out to make a difference by contributing to the growing body of policy research on global COVID-19 responses.

One of the first important decisions we had to make was to weigh the relative merits of the various online dashboards tracking COVID-19 responses. The following table summarizes the available options.

Dashboard Organization Focus Method Start Status Link
COVID-19 Policy Tracker MultiState American local/state-level COVID-19 policies Unavailable 2020 Active Dashboard
COVID-19 Dashboard Johns Hopkins University Cases, deaths, and vaccinations and in each country; American state-level policies Real-time autonomous data collection Jan 2020 Active Dashboard
CoronaNet CoronaNet Research Project National and subnational COVID-19 policies in 195 countries Manual input of policies via qualitative survey instruments from media and government releases Jan 2020 Active Dashboard
COVID-19 Government Response Tracker Oxford University Overall government responses to COVID-19 Ordinal scale tracked across 20 indicators and calculated through several indices Jan 2020 Active Dashboard
COVID-19 Policy Response Dashboard The International Growth Centre (IGC) Types and sizes of COVID-19 economic policy interventions Written reports based on government announcements, and the International Monetary Fund Mar 2020 Active Dashboard
COVID-19 Diagnostics Dashboards Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) Development, supply, regulatory approvals, and performance of COVID-19 diagnostic tests Monthly consolidation of “publicly available market intelligence to support data-driven procurement and purchasing decisions” 2021 Active Dashboard
The COVID Tracking Project The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development COVID-19 testing, hospitalization, and patient outcome data from U.S. states and territories Collection from state and territory public health authorities Jan 2020 Inactive as of March 7, 2021 Dashboard

In the end, we chose the CoronaNet Research Project, referred to as CoronaNet. Based out of the Technical University in Munich (TUM), CoronaNet is a database of COVID-19 national and sub-national government responses that includes the targets, approaches, and timing of over 100,000 policies in 195 countries. We sought to study COVID-19 responses at the macro and micro levels, and CoronaNet was the only database with comprehensive and detailed raw data on individual policies. Other policy dashboards, though valuable supplements to our research and possibly more quickly digestible, either transformed the data (e.g., by calculating various metrics on an ordinal scale) or did not exhibit the same scope as CoronaNet. On the other hand, the vast CoronaNet Research Project was stretched across all countries to collect as much information as possible rather than conducting smaller scope analyses. Our research did just that: it compared COVID-19 policy strategies within the smaller scope of strong and fragile Middle Eastern countries.

Based on the frameworks of David Carment and Eghosa Osaghae, we defined a fragile state as “a distressed internationally recognized political entity that does not possess essential elements of state stability.” These elements include a stable, loyal, and cohesive population; strong and effective institutions; effective territorial jurisdiction; legitimate sovereignty; and high levels of economic development and growth. To assess these metrics, we used a common heuristic known as the Fragile States Index.

We found that politically and economically strong countries, such as Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE, were better equipped to manage the consequences of the pandemic. Strong Middle Eastern countries implemented fewer COVID-19 restrictions. These restrictive policies, however, were more stringent and better followed than in fragile states. Indeed, strong countries tended to implement earlier and stricter restrictions that were better obeyed and thus did not require a second wave of restrictions as in fragile countries such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. On the other hand, fragile states implemented a larger number of restrictions, but the policies were less stringent and were less often observed by citizens.

Some exceptions at a more granular level are noteworthy. Fragile Middle Eastern countries were more willing to close schools than strong countries, while strong countries implemented a higher percentage of restrictions on businesses than fragile countries — perhaps because strong states could better absorb the economic impacts. Moreover, fragile states implemented a higher percentage of hygiene policies such as sanitizing public transportation. This was likely due to such measures not requiring the same level of specialized technology as automated health monitoring and COVID-19 testing. We hope these findings help predict future response patterns and guide international aid to specific sectors for each country in need.

While our project looked at the official government strategic responses to the pandemic, as researchers we had to account for the lack of transparency that some states exhibited when analyzing their policy responses. The Middle East and North African (MENA) region has a well-documented history of poor public debt reports, fuzzy definitions of key indicators, and data availability that falls short of international standards. The MENA region’s lack of transparency contributes to its lackluster growth in GDP per capita and susceptibility to financial crises. Fragile MENA countries are particularly fraught with bribery, government corruption, and ineffective means for reporting grievances. As the pandemic progressed, many of these fragile countries struggled to plan evidence-based responses to the pandemic as it evolved. Concerning our research, the lack of consistent policy reporting made it difficult to compare countries at a granular level. Although rarely contradictory, data were often incomplete and not made regularly available. As a result, we accounted for outliers in the trends we observed and systematically disregarded countries that reported only a small number of policies.

In conclusion, the United Nations recently called upon countries to better inform the public and implement measures that are proportionate to problems caused by the pandemic. The UN warns that in order to retain public support, governments must remain accountable to the people and facilitate citizen participation. Improved data and transparency are integral for policymaking, trust, and economic growth. Scholarly research has an integral role to play in bringing this information into sharper relief. It was with this imperative in mind that we believe our research contributes not only to our understanding of the pandemic from within academia but also beyond it.


Author Bios

Daniel Habib is a Lebanese-Cypriot American and a recent graduate from Johns Hopkins University where he studied Biophysics and Bioethics. Habib has conducted research on two COVID-19 dashboards: the CoronaNet Government Response Dashboard and the COVID-19 Vaccine Website Accessibility Dashboard.

Naela Elmore is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at the University of Texas at Dallas. Her research interests include the comparative politics of authoritarian regimes in the Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) region, colonialism and its effect on the contemporary SWANA region, and the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance campaigns.