Here’s what happened to South Africa’s missing Covid-19 data
There’s a potential problem emerging in South Africa’s ability to the spread of Covid-19 around the country: poor quality data.
Like many of those in South Africa who’ve been trying to stay on top of government numbers about the spread of the coronavirus, we’ve been a little confused over the last few days by the sudden inconsistency in official reporting on the subject. Last week the National Institute for Communicable Diseasess settled down into a sub-optimal, but workable, daily PDF update in a format we were able to scrape, supplemented by some numbers that appeared in an updated graphic.
Not ideal, but rich in information about location, age, travel history and gender of every case. Then, on Monday, the wheels came off and updates became sporadic, on different channels (Twitter – personal and official – or WhatsApp) and lacking in detail beyond headline case numbers. And there are already inconsistencies with the numbers reported on NICD’s official dashboards.
Why, we wondered, can’t we just get access to a simple database or CSV file?
Last night, health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize took to Twitter to explain what’s going on, in a Tweeted JPG (…) statement. According to the minister, once a case has been confirmed, patients are supposed to fill in a form with their personal details and the information of those that they may have come into close contact with – and despite carrying a penalty of up to 10 years jail time if not returned, by the sound of it these aren’t coming back properly completed, and NICD is struggling to fill in the gaps.
The process described by Mkhize is that anyone on the contact list of a confirmed case must also be tested.
The kicker, and far more serious than the gaps in the data that are emerging, is that Mkhize signed off with a threat. Not just jail time, but if your forms don’t come back correctly completed, you will be publicly named and shamed so anyone who knows you can get tested.
For what it’s worth, I personally think this is a terrible, terrible idea. It might meet with high public approval, but there’s just too much history of mistaken identity and mob justice when it goes wrong – not just in South Africa but around the world.