The Covid-19 pandemic is one of the greatest challenges the world has faced since the World War II. The virus which has killed millions globally has brought economies around the world to a standstill. To curb the spread of the virus, the Indian government too announced a nationwide lockdown on March 25. The restrictions were eased from June 1 after more than two months of lockdown. Referring to a tracker developed by the University of Oxford, which measures the policy response of the different governments across the globe against COVID-19, the Indian government’s response has been categorised as one of the most stringent in the world. As per the details available on the official website (www.bsg.ox.ac.uk/covidtracker), the tracker which was initially launched with the data of 73 countries, features real-time updates, thereby enabling the stakeholders to monitor and evaluate the response of the various governments. While the number of Covid-19 positive cases have breached the 300,000-mark in India, the percentage of casualties continues to remain less than three per cent, indicating a comparatively milder impact of the pandemic on India than the economic powerhouses of the world—United States, United Kingdom, China, Italy, Spain, etc. Further, a quick look at the Covid’s spread data across India highlights that except the seven worst-hit states (Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Gujarat), the curve appears to have flattened across the other geographies.
A central role of Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) in accessing the performance of projects, institutions, and programmes, and examining the relevance, effectiveness, efficiency, and impact of activities in light of specified objectives, is well established. The systematic collection of information as a part of monitoring ensures an availability of information to help institutions and stakeholders access the extent of advancement and achievement of objectives, and progress in the use of allocated funds. Evaluation on the other hand, establishes the significance of policy or program to determine the relevance of the objectives, efficacy of design and implementation, and sustainability of the results. In the current situation, while the GoI continues to implement the measures to safeguard people against COVID-19, and is also preparing for its aftermath, to strengthen the nation’s response against any similar future pandemic, it is important to discuss how such outbreaks accentuate the role of M&E.
Any pandemic or a crisis, such as COVID-19, often leads to a constrained environment and a handful of available resources, who work under hard-pressed timelines for figuring out appropriate solutions to an unforeseen challenge. The scenario becomes overwhelming even for a Government, as more and more of its citizens anxiously look up to it in want for such solutions. In response, as a policy measure, the administrators tends to announce relief measures, aimed to help the distressed citizens and to bring back the economy back on track. In such times, having a robust M&E system in place, helps the Government twofold – first, it ensures an effective and efficient utilization of the resources, and second, it helps in tracking the public expenditure, thereby helping the Government to redirect the funds towards the ones who need it the most.
Evaluation of the pandemic responses also presents an opportunity to analyze what worked and what did not, thereby strengthening the country’s preparedness against future exigencies. Let us consider an example from the Ebola outbreak. During that time, in West Africa, the members of UN, the Red Cross and other international organisations working as responders were mostly foreigners. Driven by human psychology, during distress the locals, however, preferred hearing from the ones who were closest to them – the ones who spoke their language. As a result, the effectiveness of the pandemic communication got weakened, primarily due to the responders’ unfamiliarity with the local culture. The World Bank reports this as one of the key communication learnings from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Such learnings and understandings become paramount in diverse multicultural countries like India, where adopting a localized/decentralized solution becomes a necessity as one blanket solution is often not effective across geographies.
The data collected from monitoring exercise during the pandemic, and evaluation undertaken after the pandemic can also be instrumental in developing models for an early prediction of the future outbreak using the technological advancements like Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. For an instance, during the ongoing COVID crisis, apart from the numbers and a few basic indices (age group, gender etc.), a detailed profiling of COVID-19 positive patients could help in understanding disease epidemiology better. A timely availability of such a profile, containing basic household characteristics, occupation, habits, chronic ailment history (individual/family), travel history (individual/friends), sanitation, behavioural trends, and other similar indicators, can help the researchers in identifying the population clusters and the category of the individuals who might be at heightened risk in case of any future pandemic outbreak.
Having said that, undertaking M&E activities during epidemics, particularly in the affected areas, involves risks of disease contraction and spread, thereby making M&E extremely challenging. The potential of the M&E to positively redirect the Government’s mitigation efforts, however, necessitates exploring alternative methods, to continue the M&E activities during epidemics. Authors from the Global Public Policy Institute, Germany have highlighted the use of technology-based solutions for M&E, focusing on the digital data collection using handheld devices, remote sensing, use of drones, or by using online platforms etc. during epidemics/disasters. For example, in Dar-es-Salaam, the drones were used for undertaking the flood mapping for disaster risk reduction. The drones provided high-resolution, up-to-date imagery that was essential to the development of exposure maps and for modeling flood risks. Apart from providing data from remote and inaccessible areas, such technological innovations, also limits the effect of human biases on the results.
Most of the world economies have taken a hit due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The IMF has predicted a contraction of global economy by 3 per cent and the recovery is anticipated to take some time. Under such an alarming situation, having a robust M&E system in place can assist in the recovery as it can ensure that the money is spent wisely through an effective and efficient tracking of the expenditure and by ensuring an optimum resource utilization.
(The author is an IIM Bangalore graduate, Subham is currently working with NITI Aayog - the Government of India's premier Public Policy think tank as a Monitoring and Evaluation Lead. Views expressed are personal.)