Lessons from a Pandemic - Data Good Data Bad - Lesson #1 Response Rate

COVID-19 has caused huge disruptions to the way we live our lives. However, everything will eventually get to some normality again. But it will be a new norm.

In the months and years ahead, we will feel the effects of COVID-19. Movies will be made, villains will be identified, heroes will be celebrated. In the light of day, we will be able to see what we did badly, what we could have done better, and what were the hero acts to inspire.

What could we have done better?

Just like all events throughout history, once the dust settles, we will have the opportunity to determine what we could have done better. Even now, it’s time to take stock. We can take advantage of some lessons learnt and allow contributions from people at large. It also gives me the chance to formulate some of my own thinking about the events over the past few months and how data and technology are shaping the direction and communication pertaining to the pandemic.

Data detail during COVID-19

I’ll be posting these insights regularly with the first shown below. Data is pivotal in all of the lessons presented. They are brief and personal views. Feel free to comment and contribute. I am expecting differences of opinion. Some of the topics are somewhat controversial. Some lessons learnt are however plainly obvious.


  • Dr. Li Wenliang was the first to alarm the world of the corona virus threat late December even though the first cases started appearing in Wuhan in November 2019.
  • China had the opportunity to react quicker than it did to prevent the outbreak. Dr. Li Wenliang ‘the whistle-blower” was summoned and reprimanded by Chinese authorities for making “untrue” comments, yet once the outbreak was out of control Dr. Li Wenliang (who has since died from the virus) has been labelled a hero for being the first to identify and notify people of the disease.
  • After the initial stutter, the Chinese government did their own investigation and recognised that COVID-19 (Corona Virus Disease 2019) was a serious epidemiological risk.
  • Having identified the problem the response was immediate. Little was considered in relation to the economy, or the impact of a lock-down.
  • China’s response was efficient as it was strategic. Lock-out started January 23 2020. Had China acted sooner the global spread would have been substantially less. Chinese - New Year was January 25 2020 (refer to https://www.ted.com/talks/gary_liu_what_the_world_can_learn_from_china_s_response_to_the_coronavirus). The start of mass migration to celebrate the occasion. Had China’s response not happened when it did, the knock-on effects would have been significantly more severe.
  • Other countries to have responded successfully, but adopting very different approaches, include South Korea, New Zealand and Singapore. Both currently showing slow or no contraction rates (although, Singapore has subsequently experienced another spike in COVID-19 cases).
  • Unfortunately, many European countries (U.K., Italy, Spain, Germany, France) and the USA are now suffering due to what appears to be a lack of initial response to the outbreak.

But it does raise interesting questions:

  • What data is fact and what data is fiction when it comes to disease and disease control?
  • How different was the COVID-19 outbreak compared to other epidemics?
  • What sort of response does knowing this elicit and by whom?
  • Should governments take immediate action or should they wait until more is known and understood?

In this somewhat unregulated social media environment, rumours spread (pardon the pun) all of the time. Separating the wheat from the chaff is a challenge for most governments and medical authorities.

How to determine fact from fiction

Dr. Li Wenliang posted his alert on the Chinese App WeChat with negative consequences to him and his family, even though in hindsight this was the right thing to do.

Why did the onus fall on Dr. Li Wenliang? Shouldn’t the responsibility of such outbreaks fall on health authorities throughout the world? To limit rumours and communication anarchy, announcements of threatening viruses/diseases must come from responsible health authorities nominated by each government. Unfortunately, the World Health Organisation failed in its role due to politics and bureaucracy.


When it comes to human health there are no “alternative facts”. Nations need to agree (unanimously):

  • the process of identifying risky diseases
  • the necessary actions required to minimise deaths and spread
  • the process for accessing reliable data
  • process for liberating the ownership of data
  • consistent publication of data

Borders don’t matter

Diseases like this and others, render borders and boundaries impotent. Counties need to set aside all differences to reach resolutions quicker, using all and available data. Together, identify the risky diseases, look at the various solutions and options and considered actions. For diseases like COVID-19 the world needs to think and agree globally but act locally. When it comes to human health, we must work swiftly and together to deal with outbreaks like the COVID-19. Be fast, have no regrets.

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