Public health is a critical aspect of governance. The Covid-19 pandemic impacted people around the world and exacerbated existing inequalities in both high and low-income countries. A combination of factors, including low hospital and health care system capacity, high urban density, poor access to water, and tenuous food security, means that response policies had to be carefully designed to consider a wide range of economic and social impacts. The global crisis tested the capacity of our institutions and governance systems to respond quickly and effectively.

Building on our experience during the 2014-2015 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, we collaborated on a suite of research projects to inform policies around the pandemic that could lessen impacts on the most vulnerable populations. The studies cover a diversity of topics including virus awareness, community mobilization, trust in government, access to basic services (food and water), and mobility patterns. 

Additional measures focused on what aid interventions and messages are more effective in motivating citizens to comply with critical public health measures (e.g., social distancing, hand-washing, vaccination). Below is a summary of public health related projects and research outputs to date:

  • Community of practice study in Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, and Senegal. We conducted phone surveys in Uganda with the Makerere School of Public Health (MakSPH). Our preliminary findings suggest that attitudes related to trust in government and institutions – such as trust in the Ministry of Health and belief that institutions are truthful with respect to Covid-19 – are correlated with vaccination rates; individuals with higher levels of trust are also more likely to report that they have been vaccinated. Similar surveys were conducted in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, and Senegal. Read a summary of our research findings and an academic article on data from Uganda, also highlighted in MIT News.
  • Rapid surveys in Sierra Leone. In collaboration with the Institute for Governance Reform, Sierra Leone’s Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation (DSTI), and Ministry of Finance’s Research and Delivery Division (MoF-RDD), we conducted two nationally representative surveys in Sierra Leone (April and July, 2020). The surveys helped us assess several critical indicators such as citizens’ knowledge of Covid-19 symptoms, willingness to self isolate, willingness to vaccinate, community mobilization, food insecurity, and capacity to withstand a lockdown. Our preliminary findings for the first survey can be accessed here, and we also produced a short analysis assessing citizen trust in government over the first few months of the pandemic. 
  • Mobility data to understand pandemic movement in Sierra Leone. We used mobile tower data to study citizens’ mobility in Sierra Leone during the lockdown. In collaboration with the Civic Data Design Lab (CDDL), Sierra Leone’s Directorate for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSTI) and Africell, we assessed the efficacy of the imposed mobility restrictions. Our research showed that during a three day lockdown imposed by the government, mobility did indeed reduce, thereby proving the lockdown’s effectiveness. We also produced a guide for policy-makers on using mobility data for public policy response in times of crisis. 
  • Network study in Nigeria to explain the relationship between method of vaccine delivery and trust in government. In Nigeria, we partnered with eHealth Africa to conduct census-level surveys in ten Nigerian communities to investigate vaccine acceptance, equity and trust in government to understand vaccine resistance and how the nature of vaccine delivery may affect future trust in government. This research explores what social factors influence actions and decision-making due to communal attitudes, beliefs, and group behavior. 
  • Crowdsourcing content to improve vaccine uptake on social media. Along with the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics we worked to assess what types of messaging and messengers are the most effective in increasing Covid-19 vaccine confidence and uptake. This project is part of the Vaccine Confidence Fund, and the main geography of study is Kenya. Check out our case study on how to crowd-source online video content for public health measures.
  • Beliefs and behaviors about Covid-19 in Uganda. A team from MIT GOV/LAB, WZB, NYU Abu Dhabi and PS Consulting of Uganda conducted phone surveys of Kampala residents between June-December 2020 examining social, health, and economic impacts of Covid-19 (data dashboard). The study builds on an existing collaboration with the Kampala Capital City Authority.

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash