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Cooperation is key to fighting a pandemic – that's why I helped create a global coronavirus tracker

Governments across the world have responded in radically different ways to the COVID-19 crisis. Some are denying its seriousness. Some are blaming others. More and more are enacting restrictions on personal freedoms that are without precedent in peacetime. To defeat the virus, governments need to take a strictly evidence-based approach in order to learn rapidly from all countries’ experience. That will require cooperation and coordination. 

Until now, systematic information on how and when governments are adopting policy responses has been lacking. That’s why at the University of Oxford we have mobilised our diverse student community – able to read policy developments in virtually all countries’ primary languages – to build the world’s first comprehensive tracking system: the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker.

Everywhere debates are raging about the response to COVID-19. Governments are under immense scrutiny. And yet we see pundits, commentators, and officials making simple comparisons, arguing that their country should follow the “Singaporean model”, or perhaps that a “Lombard lockdown” is preferable to a “Wuhan-style” quarantine.

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Rarely do these comparisons consider how or why a certain approach worked in a certain place. Without orderly data and careful empirical analysis, the drumbeat of COVID-19 commentary will make it hard for decision-makers around the world to make the best possible choices.

For the last two weeks, several dozen Oxford students, faculty, and staff have been scanning government websites and news sources across the world to measure governments’ responses across eleven indicators, such as school closings, bans on public events, and travel restrictions. From this information we have constructed a statistical index that measures the stringency of governments’ responses from 0 to 100 over time, with higher scores indicating stronger responses. All of our data is freely accessible online, and we will continue to update it as the crisis unfolds. 

At the time of writing, some countries are now at close to the top of our index, even in places where the number of confirmed cases remains low, like Croatia, Serbia, or Qatar. Others, like Brazil or Sweden, have not yet enacted measures as stringent as many of their neighbours. 

We also see many differences in how quickly governments increase stringency. Some, like South Korea, have increased the stringency of their responses rapidly as the number of cases rose. Others, like the United Kingdom and the United States, have waited longer. 

Over the coming weeks we will be able to measure the consequences of these different choices, looking at the relationship between policy measures and the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. Aggregate indices cannot, of course, tell the full story. So we are also looking to include additional indicators and sub-national data (for example, regional or local government responses) to the database.

Going forward, cooperation will be critical. Facing a disease that exploits our connections, the instinct of many governments and of many people is to sever ties with others. Indeed, many of the policy actions that comprise our index are about eliminating physical opportunities for the virus to spread. But at the same time we need to forge working links with each other, both in our communities and across borders, to understand and respond to the crisis effectively.

We have seen a small but effective example of the power of cooperation in Oxford these last weeks. Though physically separated, students, staff, and academics across many disciplines, from dozens of countries, speaking a multitude of languages, have come together to volunteer their time to map our responses to a common foe. Now we need governments to adopt a similar spirit of rapid, radical collaboration. 

Thomas Hale is associate professor of global public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. With Toby Phillips, Anna Petherick and Sam Webster he has initiated the Oxford COVID-19 Government ResponseTracker.

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