Summer in the Field: Tracking Government Responses to the COVID-19 Crisis

Photo by Martin Sanchez via Unsplash.

By Natalie Ellis

As the two-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic approaches, many people may be looking towards the future of returning to a “new normal.” 

However, one data group, the CoronaNet Research Project, will continue to look back at the apex of the pandemic in an effort to paint a complete picture of the effect of COVID-19 worldwide. The CoronaNet Research Project is a 500+ volunteer-supported initiative categorizing and logging international government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As a 2021 Summer in the Field Fellow, I worked with CoronaNet as a Volunteer Research Assistant and Country Manager. As part of this project, I worked alongside Cindy Cheng, one of the Principal Investigators of the project. Based on interview with Cheng, this piece explores the evolution of the project and its future as the pandemic evolves. 

Project growth over time

The main change CoronaNet has seen since its inception is in project organization and management. 

In the first few months of the project, 200-300 volunteers were managed solely by the principal investigators. Since then, the project has grown rapidly, necessitating a more refined organizational structure consisting of Principal Investigators, Regional Managers, Country Managers and others. 

Additionally, the taxonomy of government policies has become more sophisticated to fully encompass the variety of COVID-19 government responses and legislations. These policies are coded into the database under the following categories:

  • Quarantine
  • Declaration of Emergency
  • Lockdown
  • External Border Restrictions
  • Internal Border Restrictions
  • Restriction of Mass Gatherings
  • Social Distancing
  • Curfew
  • Health Testing
  • Health Monitoring
  • Health Resources
  • Closure and Regulation of Schools
  • Restriction and Regulation of Government Services
  • Restriction and Regulation of Businesses
  • COVID-19 vaccines
  • Public Awareness Measures
  • Anti-Disinformation Measures
  • New Task Force, Bureau or Administrative Configuration
How it works

Currently, CoronaNet is the only project coding subnational data systematically for a number of countries around the world. Other datasets organize policies either by national-level policies of all countries, or one country gathering subnational data on their own policies. By systematically collecting data for subnational data and national data, it is possible to use the CoronaNet data to compare policy variations within and between countries and government systems.

CoronaNet data allows users to see how responses to the pandemic varied across the world. Researchers are able to see what factors drive these policies, as well as the behavioral effects of the pandemic. The data could also be used to assess questions, such as how has the pandemic affect mental health, or how have city-wide lockdowns affected pollution rates? Furthermore, once the pandemic is effectively over, policymakers and scientists can examine the data and draw lessons for the next pandemic.

The data is free and open access to all. For those without a background in data research, CoronaNet places an emphasis on having standardized qualitative descriptions. CoronaNet is also working on a data visualization tool that will help people read the data and government responses in an intuitive way.

More to be done

Since the inception of the project, the end date of the initiative and data collection has constantly been evolving and partially unknown. To Cheng, the international community “could have lived in the world where the project could be over in six months.” But due to variable vaccination rates around the world and the rise of COVID-19 variants, the data CoronaNet tracks has continued to evolve. Due to funding timelines, the project is currently scheduled to end in November 2023. 

Additionally, as the project is volunteer-run, public interest is crucial to the success of the project. As it is primarily volunteer based, the future of the project also depends on the number and productiveness of its volunteers. Amid the widespread lockdowns of the early pandemic period, the project received great interest from volunteers looking to fill their newly found free time and contribute to the fight against COVID-19. However, as communities around the world emerge from lockdown and return to regular occupations, the number of volunteers has declined. 

A central goal of the project is to produce clean and complete data that accurately reflects the worldwide response to the pandemic. One key challenge is ensuring all countries are equally represented in the dataset. Again, as the project is volunteer based, it is at the discretion of individual interests. To date, volunteers have tended to be educated adults with the privilege of having free time to donate during the crisis. Naturally, the volunteers who code policies for the countries in which they live will also have a better understanding and first-hand knowledge of restrictions and regulations. They will also have better access to primary resources for their country. The countries with a large representation of volunteers (Germany, France, Russia, Canada, United States and China) have larger datasets. Furthermore, because the project is funded by the EU, special attention has been paid to EU countries due to stipulations of the grant. 

Additionally, the project is subject to the availability of information about governmental responses to COVID-19. Hence, the availability and transparency of a country’s regulations and decisions regarding COVID-19 is correlated with the accuracy of the data. In addition, all policies that are not archived online (ex. printed news, policies published for a limited time and subsequently deleted, etc.) are missing from the dataset.  

After validating the final dataset, the main goal of the project will be to help researchers and public health professionals make valid comparisons between different government responses to the pandemic. The more widespread the dataset, the better it will be able to generalize to the rest of the world and future public health policy decisions. Furthermore, the more complete the dataset, the more external validity it will hold.

As each country battles COVID-19 in its own way, it has become highly imperative to capture accurate data of the disparate global responses. Only when vaccine equity is achieved across the globe will the daily impact of the pandemic begin to lessen. When that happens, policymakers, researchers and other stakeholders will have the tools to prepare for the next public health crisis. 

Natalie Ellis is Doctoral Candidate in Occupational Therapy at Boston University and a 2021 Summer in the Field Fellow. Learn more about the Summer in the Field Fellowship.