‘There is no playbook in dealing with the pandemic’: how StatsCan has mobilized around urgent COVID-19 data collection

Of interest:

With the majority of people at Statistics Canada still working from home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency has been working to become more agile in its collection of disaggregated data and the disproportionate effects of the crisis on vulnerable communities, according to Tina Chui, acting director of diversity and social statistics.

“There is no playbook in dealing with the pandemic,” said Ms. Chui. “I think we’ve become a lot more agile, and StatsCan has been undergoing modernization for a number of years, which allowed us to springboard into more innovative ways of doing things.”

The impact of the pandemic has been spread unevenly across the Canadian population, particularly pertaining to people from vulnerable communities and marginalized groups.

“Because of that, we have really mobilized to collect as much information as possible,” said Ms. Chui. “We have been investing our efforts in a number of modernization initiatives for a number of years already, which actually helped us to prepare for the pandemic response.”

Ms. Chui said that during the initial stages of the pandemic, senior management within Statistics Canada took “calculated risks and made some tough choices” to adapt the agency’s response to urgent data needs, including everything from information around mental health to the impact on businesses to enable people to better navigate the impact of the damage.

Crowdsourcing, web panels used for COVID-19 data collection

The agency has engaged in a number of crowdsourcing pushes throughout the pandemic, with first results on the impacts of COVID-19 on Canadians coming in between April 3 and April 24, followed by a focus on the impacts of the pandemic on postsecondary students from April 19 to May 1.

The focus then shifted to the collection of data surrounding the mental health of Canadians from April 24 to May 11; Canadians’ perceptions of personal safety from May 12 to May 25; trust in government, public health authorities and businesses from May 26 to June 8; as well as the impact of COVID-19 on Canadian families and children from June 9 to June 22.

Most recently, crowdsourcing was used to analyze the impacts of the pandemic on Canadians living with long-term conditions and disabilities from June 23 to July 6, finishing with a push to determine Canadians’ experiences of discrimination from August 4 to August 18.

Web panels have also been used from March 29 through to September 20 to collect data around the impacts of the pandemic, resuming economic and social activities, information sources consulted by Canadians, as well as technology use and cyber security.

From Jan. 25 to Feb. 1, the agency will be looking into substance use and stigmatization within the context of the pandemic as well.

“We really used those two sources in the last few months to collect very timely information,” said Ms. Chui. “Since the lockdown in mid-March, we worked very quickly to put some new surveys through crowdsource and web panel methods to collect data.”

‘We had to mobilize very quickly’

The federal government introduced its anti-racism strategy in June 2019, designed to unroll from 2019 to 2022 at the cost of $45-million.

Statistics Canada’s role within that strategy is to “support the data and evidence pillar,” said Ms. Chui. “Fast forward to the pandemic: we do need this real-time [data], we had to mobilize very quickly, so how can we leverage the existing work to monitor how Canadians are dealing with the pandemic?”

Calling the agency’s Labour Force Survey their “mission critical program,” Ms. Chui said new questions have been recently added to get a better sense for the impact on visible minority populations.

“That’s how we can find monthly data of COVID on employment,” said Ms. Chui. “Unfortunately we’re still deep in the second wave, but when we’re going through the recovery, certain communities will have a lot more to gain back, so with the monthly survey, we’ll be able to better monitor the situation.”

According to the most recent Labour Force Survey that reflects labour market conditions as of the week of Nov. 8 to 14, growth was “variable across demographic groups.”

Among Canadians aged 15 to 69, according to the report released on Dec. 4, the unemployment rate of those designated as a visible minority decreased 1.5 per cent to 10.2 per cent in November.

Beginning in July, the survey now includes a question asking respondents to report the population groups to which they belong. Possible responses, which are the same as in the 2016 census, include, White, South Asian (e.g., East Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan), Chinese, Black, Filipino, Arab, Latin American, Southeast Asian (e.g., Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Thai), West Asian (e.g., Iranian, Afghan), Korean, Japanese, or Other, according to Statistics Canada’s website.

Long-form census scheduled for 2021

In his mandate letter from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) office, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry Navdeep Bains is responsible for preparing for the long-form census in 2021, including the collection and analysis of disaggregated data.

Ms. Chui said the census is the government’s “best source for disaggregated data.”

“For instance, when we look at socio-economic outcomes of women, we cannot just look at women, because socio-economic outcomes are tied very closely together with age, because age is a proxy for lifecycle,” said Ms. Chui. “So we have to look at the combinations of sex and age, and we can still drill further [into regions]. Then you can further drill into women in their prime working age, who are members of a visible minority.”

“The census is such a big data source that it will allow us to drill down into that level of detail, while also allowing us to protect the privacy and confidentiality of respondents,” said Ms. Chui.

According to the department, the census will contain new content to better identify individuals’ sex at birth, gender, veteran status, religion, registered members of Métis organization or settlements, as well as those enrolled under or a beneficiary of an Inuit lands claim agreement.

Pandemic has highlighted ‘pre-existing inequalities in our society,’ says expert

Malinda Smith, a professor at the University of Alberta who has also sat on Statistics Canada’s Expert Working Group on Black Communities in Canada, told The Hill Times that the pandemic has highlighted the pre-existing inequalities in our society, and “aggravated them for people who are on the front lines, people you see were marginalized, but now we recognize are essential.”

University of Alberta professor Malinda Smith says ‘what Statistics Canada can do from a national point of view is provide clear categories and a coherent strategy where we have data that is collected and comparable.’

There was a need for better race-based data prior to the pandemic in relation to policing, according to Prof. Smith—a need that has been amplified as result of the pandemic.

“What this has all shown is that across the country, across the provinces, is very uneven data collection, and what Statistics Canada can do from a national point of view is provide clear categories and a coherent strategy where we have data that is collected and comparable.”

“And this is as, if not more important—the information will be able to help evaluate initiatives and programs and policies to assess their differential impact, and then to design interventions that will properly address them,” said Prof. Smith.

“Right now, a once-size-fits-all strategy doesn’t allow you to do that, and the uneven data collection doesn’t allow you to even identify hotspots,” said Prof. Smith. “My view is that even though this is framed as an anti-racism strategy, it might just as well be framed in terms of a systematic commitment to what an equitable, inclusive society looks like.”

Source: ‘There is no playbook in dealing with the pandemic’: how StatsCan has mobilized around urgent COVID-19 data collection

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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