What kind of research should inform Covid responses?

This post is co-authored with Irene Guijt

If we agree that evidence-informed policy and practice are good things, we need to think about what kind of research gets commissioned. Some kinds of research are definitely more useful than others. 

We’ve been discussing the urgent needs in Covid research with Heather Marquette (after her great April FP2P posts on this) and others –here are a few of the topics that have cropped up.

We need actual data about the Covid-changed world

We have all largely depended on hypotheses and narratives so far. But we now need new data and synthesis to aid decision making – including to help inform trade-offs and policy choices between controlling the virus and controlling everything else that can kill, including indirect effects.  This includes data on comorbidity – deaths from everything else while health service use drops or as a result of the impacts of lockdown measures, not just the virus. This data should not be limited to humanitarian settings. CGD have a really useful initial effort at this – trying to calculate how many non-Covid deaths may result from different kinds of Covid responses, to put numbers on the trade-offs, which are otherwise being discussed in rhetorical terms. We’ve all heard them: ‘we will all die of hunger because of this lockdown’; ‘the cure is worse than the disease’.

We are fast reaching the end of the road for Covid expert opinion based on what was happening in last data rounds before Covid, and need to shift gears to investing in new data.

Some of the big quantitative research outfits are doing this (IPA, CGD, IGC, Y-RISE) – as have some qualitative researchers (BRAC, Hrishipara Diaries, Rift Valley Institute, GAGE). 

From Heather Marquette’s April posts

To shift to this kind of remote survey work (whether qual or quant), initial experience suggests the importance of pre-existing research networks, teams, ethical frameworks, skills; trained field researchers who can readily and safely shift to phone/remote methods; and existing baselines to sample/include/compare with.  It is very hard to kick start decent urgent research without this foundation already in place – as we have seen with Covid ‘events lists’ (eg of protests) that lack any sense of what happened previously.

New and Better Narratives

There are extraordinarily conflicting Covid narratives about what is actually happening in many parts of the world, but perhaps most of all in Africa – is it doing better than the North?; or facing a crisis only slower than elsewhere (WHO)?; or facing a catastrophe now?. It is hard to find evidence to test these. There are also a variety of CSO narratives – from the ‘seizing opportunity to deliver mutual aid’ – to impending doom for them and their work.  Again, hard to get beyond anecdotes or individual cases. 

And as the amount of Covid commentary continues to soar exponentially (no sign of curves flattening there), this is only going to become more pronounced. There is an urgent need for credible, accurate syntheses of what is emerging from all this (as no-one will have the time to read it all). But the incentives in academia are all around churning out new papers, not comparing existing ones or making sense of the mountains of blogs, articles, briefing papers, and more.  

(See also my recent piece on weak signals and the problem of echo chambers)

The Bigfooting power of a Big Emergency

Process matters. In ‘peace time’ we (hopefully) had a general agreement about who should be involved in a given piece of research to ensure a proper and inclusive understanding of views and impacts. Whether related to gender inclusion and women’s representation, north/south, or complementary research disciplines, we imagined that retaining this diversity and representation would also see us well through a crisis – but of course this is not the case as @Peter_Evans_guv explains here

‘Bigfooting’ in journalism is when someone has been freelancing in some largely ignored part of the world, and then something big happens (earthquake, war etc). In flies the big name correspondent from Washington or London and ‘bigfoots’ the hapless freelancer.

Something similar happens with big disasters – years of careful progress in building research methods that understand the local context, listen to citizens, work respectfully with local partners etc are shoved aside by the urgency to get the money out the door. The loudest voices, or those with the most confident offer, move quickest or speak loudest (including ‘Covid washing’ opportunists who have rebadged their pet project for the crisis).

Modelling v Empiricism

Watching how and when research influences Covid policy, we have seen the power of ‘mathiness’ – things with numbers win the argument (especially if repeated often), even if those numbers are largely arbitrary/fictional.    

But drilling down, there’s a distinction between two types of science going on here, as a recent piece in the New Statesman explained. One is theoretical, meaning it is based on models that attempt to predict how things will behave. The other is empirical, meaning it is based on observation and experience of how things have actually behaved.

I much prefer the empirical side – but that takes time and meanwhile, modelling exerts a hypnotic fascination on decision-makers because they think (wrongly) that it predicts the future. On arrival at Oxfam, when trade was the big global issue, I spent ages pointing out the bogus nature of trade modelling, which merely added mathiness to the assumptions of the liberalizers. I even got one of the father’s of Computable General Equilibrium (CGE) modelling to write a paper denouncing how it was being misused. Don’t think it had much impact, sadly.

So where do we go from here?

We can’t fill all the gaps, so where do we start? Seems to us we need several pieces to come together around:

  • More observation of ‘emergent agency’ – how are poor individuals and communities responding to the disease, and the vagaries of official responses? What new forms of politics are emerging? LSE and Oxfam are collaborating on this – will post more on this in a few days.
  • More qualitative research on impact and response – intersectional data on how vulnerable groups are being affected (e.g. increasing gender inequalities or not) and the nature and effectiveness of state/private sector/civil society responses  
  • More attention to fragile and conflict-affected settings where standard responses focussing on the state, private sector and CSOsare even less likely to work (e.g. if you’re in a bit of Myanmar that’s governed by an ethnic armed organization!)
  • More syntheses of the avalanche of research as it emerges.

Given that no institution can do all this at a global level, maybe a place to start is to identify a few countries where research networks are in place, and begin there. It will all take money of course, so a lot will depend on the ability of the big funders and foundations to move swiftly.

Any other ideas? 

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12 Responses to “What kind of research should inform Covid responses?”
  1. Narayan Manandhar

    Very interesting material. In Nepal, since the imposition of lock down on 24 March, the newspapers have reported more than 1200 people have committed suicide. I suppose this is terribly a big figure, only a careful research as mentioned here can disentangle the unintended consequences of COVID policy.

  2. We at Prolinnova (Promoting local innovation in ecologically oriented agriculture and natural resource management http://www.prolinnova.net) are trying to do just this. We have been working with a network of partners that spans twenty countries with an approach to sustainable agricultural development that recognises the innovative capacity of smallscale farmers (SSF) in marginal settings. Farmer-led innovation development gives voice and agency to SSF communities and strengthens local innovative capacity, which enables them to be resilient in the face of crisis. We are now undertaking an empirical research to show evidence of this claim with the hope that agricultural research and development policy makers and donors could be persuaded to support such approaches.

  3. Mutale Wakunuma

    Good read on what research is needed at a time like this. If ever there was a time to shift gears on “home-grown” research, now would be it. There is a dearth of research that is locally generated and contextually appropriate. It will be important to cultivate such capacities where these may be limited. There is a conversation currently to get this kind of work going in the Southern Africa region which could help fill this gap. Enjoyed your article

  4. catherine Dom

    Great read but misses the question ‘who are “we”‘? “…we agree that evidence-informed policy and practice…”; “We have all largely depended on hypotheses and narratives…”. The more I think about research the more I believe that who sets the questions, the agenda, who ‘commissions’, is key. Not enough to say “who participates” and “established research networks” all too often disconnected from policy let alone practice. Not enough to think along the classical sequence 1) ‘researchers’ or research networks or… “we” identify what we think is important and for what and possibly for who; 2) we ensure this research is done, and oh yes, we try to involve everyone and then 3) we try to convince policymakers and practitioners that this research piece is key for this or that. One way of thinking about all that (lateral thinking, agreed) is in reading “le parlement des choses” of Bruno Latour. Sorry, in French. Maybe there’s an English translation. Best

  5. Thanks Irene and Duncan, a very important blog, and indeed the pandemic and policy responses have shown the need for policy-oriented research and evidence as clearly as ever. And as I think Ruth Levine commented, we have seen that evidence can indeed inform policy much more rapid than before. At IDRC, we believe that as much as development action should be owned ‘locally’, research should be generated in the countries and by its researchers in collaboration with its policy makers and civil society. We blogged about this, thanks to the space you gave us, with respect to support to economic policy research in Africa. The multi-donor Think Tank Initiative supported the capacity of more than 40 organisations around the world to create the evidence to inform effective national policy. Southern Voice and On Think Tanks are young Southern based platforms that share learnings and amplify the researchers of national thinks tanks. These capacities are, and we think will continue to be in huge demand in response to the current pandemic, the above-mentioned organisations have quickly mobilised to do so, and at IDRC will continue to support these and have mobilised its resources for a rapid funding response to do so. We look forward to connect to other global initiatives to help generate the best possible evidence that is urgently needed, as the pandemic continues to spread through the global South, and countries continue to need stronger health and other public policy responses.

    • Action must be owned locally – but it must also be thought locally. I think that the data when one can speak of the developing world or the Global South on top an “international development” soapbox are over.
      The data, evidence and knowledge we need is not absolute (what works style) and is not apolitical (development technocrats trying to think politically). It is contextual -at the hyper local- and political – because it deals with Power! I for one would like to see fewer global and “big quantitative research outfits” and more and better local policy research communities.
      It is only through them that we can (here, at the local level) understand what has happened, why, what is happening now and what could happen next.

  6. Thanks Duncan and Irene for writing this. My question as I was reading your post was “why”, as in – who is the audience for the research, and who is the “we”? I think these need to be clarified first, especially before money moves…

    For instance, as as consulting firm with embedded analysts/researchers (rather than a research organisation per se) we noticed that – at the beginning – people we work with – international orgs, African governments, Chinese companies – had very little understanding about how COVID19 was affecting African countries. As times moved on, we have seen some organisations (not those we work with) refute this with the occasional case study – eg. of Mauritius as an exceptional success, or of Sierra Leone doing Ok because it’s used to dealing with plagues, etc, or simply assume away functioning societies and governments – e.g. the “extreme poverty” number modelling, which as you mention has some major limitations. We have found it very hard to find research so far that we can present to those we work with that – apart from our own analysis and that of the African Development Bank more recently – a complete picture of African countries. We believe as a result there are partial and incomplete economic views of African countries from outside and inside, and this affects everything from African investment prospects, to debt challenges, to trade. We also believe there is little space so far created by research for functioning government accountability where, for instance, different African governments can be held up against each other (not external actors) to say – what could they have done better and how can they learn from each other…

    These are very practical issues. And we would like more research organisations to be concerned about them and tackle them head on.
    Can your approach help?

  7. Diana Mitlin

    Kenyan grassroots organizations have been working with their support NGO to monitor the spread of Covid-19 and document government preventive measures https://www.muungano.net/browseblogs/2020/6/23/23-june-2020-coronavirus-situation-tracker-for-kenyan-informal-settlements
    This work is illustrative of what information collective is possible with strong local organizations. The Muungano Alliance are sharing this data with government and taking part in a Ministry of Health taskforce to address the health emergency in informal settlements.
    We have been seeking to support this work at the Global Development Institute, because it seems to be essential to an informed understanding of what is taking place that will lead to a better response.

  8. Two questions.
    1. “But the incentives in academia are all around churning out new papers, not comparing existing ones or making sense of the mountains of blogs, articles, briefing papers, and more.” Agree. But who is going to pay for this desk research right now — which is an ongoing process of synthesis and revision, not a one-off activity? And at what level should it be synthesized / who is the primary audience (sub-national data, national, regional, SSA)? I know researchers at least some researchers are trying to coordinate findings in Uganda, for example, but are struggling with bandwidth.
    2. “So where do we go from here?” The questions and data types you suggest are interesting and possibly useful — but it strikes me they are likely not the ones being demanded by governments to coordinate their response. We’ve been hearing more questions about KAP, food security, whether contact tracing apps are worth the investment, and where to send tests. How should we think about the role of describing emergent politics, power, suffering, mitigation, & resilience in figuring out what we (whoever we are) are all meant to do?