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Four reasons why livestock data matter in the COVID-19 crisis

Since 2016, the team at Supporting Evidence Based Interventions (SEBI) have worked to mobilise and apply data and evidence to help the livestock community make better decisions, ones that improve livelihoods for smallholders in low and middle-income countries. Now, we are trying to untangle and foresee how COVID-19 intersects with our work. We point out four areas of convergence, and suggest key actions now and in the future.

Cows on Kapiti Ranch, Kenya
Cows on Kapiti Ranch, Kenya. Photo credit: J. Meyers (ILRI)

By Vanessa Meadu

  1. Data can show how COVID-19 impacts smallholder livestock keepers and inform responses

COVID-19 has not yet peaked in Low and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs), where hundreds of millions of people depend on livestock for their livelihoods. These countries are bracing themselves for the worst: the World Food Programme has already predicted that COVID-19 “will almost double acute hunger by end of 2020,” while the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Bank have warned that the crisis will increase inequality, intensify poverty, and devastate economies.

What does this look like in the livestock sector? From our work to track the impacts of livestock initiatives, we foresee major effects on value chains, and thus on the lives of people working in the sector. Lockdowns and illness will reduce availability of workers. For example, the smallholder dairy sector, which depends on hired labour, will have reduced capacity on farms and in collection, processing and distribution. People may earn less money, resulting in less demand for meat, milk and eggs, and contributing to critical declines in nutrition, increasing hunger, and possible economic and social instability. This scenario threatens to undo much of the good livestock development work of the past decades, and we may see the after-effects for a long time.

Conversely, livestock may also offer a means of resilience and a pathway out of hardship. Livestock keepers may feel different economic and food security impacts to other smallholders. In times of crisis, people may sell off animals for additional income. We could also see positive changes for livestock keepers. With fewer people moving around, and fewer imports, local production and processing capabilities may increase. Households and communities may rely more on their own food production. This could also potentially decrease the environmental impacts of livestock production.

As we work with projects to gather and analyse data from farms, we will begin to see what impacts COVID-19 has had on smallholder production and livelihoods. This data will be critical to inform and potentially reshape livestock investment and interventions to the ‘new normal’.  

  1. COVID-19 affects how animal and human health issues are perceived, funded and addressed

This crisis underscores the critical linkages between human and animal health, particularly how to track and tackle zoonotic diseases (which can be transferred from animals to humans), and in supporting the complex vaccine development process, these themes which cut across SEBI’s work.

One of our key functions has been to build the livestock evidence base and close data gaps for animal health. We are leading an effort to bring together hard-to-find evidence on disease frequency and disease-associated mortality rates for sub-Saharan African countries, starting with Ethiopia. This is being collated into a systematic map that describes and catalogues the available evidence from hundreds of peer-reviewed and grey literature sources. Launching at the end of May, findings will be presented using an interactive online visualization tool designed to help identify research gaps and help decision makers digest the available evidence.

We are pleased to see a number of evidence synthesis initiatives related to COVID-19, the most prominent one being a living systematic map of existing evidence by the EPPI-Centre, University of London.  The University of Edinburgh just launched a systematic online living evidence summary of COVID19 research through the CAMARADES group (Collaborative Approach to Meta-Analysis and Review of Animal Data from Experimental Studies), which recruited dozens of volunteers helped annotate thousands of papers in a matter of weeks. More evidence synthesis initiatives are cropping up daily, led by the World Health Organisation, Cochrane, the Joanna Briggs Institute, Campbell Collaboration, and Oxford University.

Meanwhile, the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine has put an unprecedented spotlight on vaccine development. There are urgent considerations around developing animal vaccines to keep livestock populations healthy so transmissions do not occur. While SEBI efforts are currently focused on facilitating a new Foot and Mouth Disease vaccine in Nigeria, there are important lessons in the process of working with experts and leading vaccine manufacturers to improve vaccine efficacy, safety and quality. With more than 90 COVID-19 vaccines currently under development there are shared challenges around testing, regulation and licensing, manufacturing at scale, and equitable distribution.

  1. COVID-19 underlines the importance of good, open, data and evidence-based policy

This pandemic has forced us to confront how data is used (or ignored) for critical decisions. Never before have we seen such mainstream emphasis on good, open, data, and on evidence-based policy. We have seen discussion on the opportunities and pitfalls of different modelling approaches and openness about uncertainty and nuances of data. This will affect how we handle uncertainty in moving forward with decisions. There is also a strong demand for good communication and visualisation of data for decision making and public information, exemplified by the popularity of the Financial Times’ live visual narrative of the spread of Covid-19.

These approaches all depend on consistent and effective data gathering, as well on as official data being available. There are similar barriers to accessing livestock data, and we support calls for governments to openly publish their data. We also hope this will spur public demand for data-driven approaches to other critical challenges such as the climate crisis.

 

  1. COVID-19 calls for radical, cross-disciplinary collaboration

Global problems require collaborative solutions, and problem solvers need collaborative spaces to work together. Oxford Professor Thomas Hale has called for Radical Collaboration , a concept which is at the core of SEBI’s efforts to address livestock health and productivity. We facilitate the Livestock Data for Decisions (LD4D) Community of practice, offering our members a space to collaborate on solutions and draw on expertise from partners who don’t conventionally work in the livestock sector. For example, our work with the University of Edinburgh’s Bayes Centre is bringing novel informatics approaches to bear on critical livestock data challenges. We believe that as a community we can achieve more than as individuals or institutions.

 

Ultimately these four areas of work are core to SEBI’s mission, and indicators of much-needed transformation in how the world anticipates and responds to critical challenges. SEBI is convening discussions on this topic through the LD4D community, to explore the livestock data needs around COVID-19 and propose some collaborative solutions that we can take forward. To stay informed, please visit livestockdata.org,  sign up to the Livestock Data for Decisions (LD4D) mailing list or follow @LD4D_Community on twitter.

Vanessa Meadu is the Communications and Knowledge Exchange Specialist with SEBI. This article benefited from input from SEBI colleagues Aluna Chawala, Theodora Tsouloufi, Gareth Salmon and Karen Smyth.