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How COVID-19 is changing the world: a statistical perspective from international agencies

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We are living through unprecedented times. The impact of the novel coronavirus and its disease, COVID-19, has reverberated through every corner of the globe—taking lives, destroying livelihoods, and changing everything about how we interact with each other and the world.

At a time of crisis, governments more than ever must rely on timely, reliable data to make decisions to mitigate harm and support their citizens. What’s more, given the grave impacts of the coronavirus pandemic in our interconnected world, decisions made today will have consequences that will last far into the future, affecting people in every region and community. 

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Image: @CCSA

That’s why the Committee for the Coordination of Statistical Activities (CCSA), a partnership of international and supranational organizations, which I co-chair has just released its new report: “How COVID-19 is changing the world: a statistical perspective”. The report aims to share information on the impacts of the novel coronavirus across a range of areas, including economic, social, and statistical impacts on regions and countries.

Overall, the trends being seen in the last few months would have been unimaginable in 2019, with new statistical records being set on a nearly weekly basis. To name just a few, when it comes to economic costs, the aviation industry is presently facing its deepest crisis in the history of the industry, with 90% of the global fleet grounded. Meanwhile, the Free Market Commodity Price Index (FMCPI), a key indicator of global trade, fell over 20 percent in March alone.

We are living through unprecedented times.

In terms of social costs, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics estimates that the education of 1.6 billion learners has been disrupted, which comprises 9 out of every 10 students in the world.  Unsurprisingly, urban areas are bearing the brunt of the pandemic, with more than 90% of COVID-19 cases occurring in urban areas, according to data from UN-HABITAT.

Meanwhile, efforts to eliminate extreme poverty are being set back immensely, with global poverty expected to increase for the first time since the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis. Nowcasting by the World Bank’s PovcalNet team shows that 40 to 60 million people are expected to be pushed into extreme poverty in 2020—that is, living on less than $1.90 a day—as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.  At the same time, the threat to children who are already impoverished is expected to be catastrophic, given the expected long-term impacts tied to lack of access to life-saving vaccinations, increased risk of violence, and interruptions to education.

...decisions made today will have consequences that will last far into the future, affecting people in every region and community.

The reason that we’re able to share this snapshot into the impacts of COVID-19 is because of the existing investments that have been made by the international community into the field of statistics. Unfortunately, the pandemic is posing a significant challenge to this vital area of knowledge about our world. Statistical capacity is being squeezed around the globe, particularly in low-income countries that have limited resources to invest into their public goods. Furthermore, the 2020 round of censuses which were scheduled to take place in more than 120 countries are at grave risk of falling behind, limiting our collective ability to ensure representative data to guide our policies.

Personally, I see the collaborative effort involved in putting together this new statistical report—bringing together 36 international organizations to provide high-quality statistics on COVID-19 and its impacts—as an example of the kind of collaboration that will be critically needed going forward. It’s of vital importance that those of us in the international statistical community continue to work closely together, particularly to support struggling statistics efforts in low-income countries.  In the troubled times that lie ahead, timely and accurate statistics are our best bet to ensure that no one is left behind.


Haishan Fu

Chief Statistician of the World Bank and Director of the Development Data Group

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