Population data in post-pandemic era: invest in the vital registration system

Shyam Upadhyaya, Integrated Statistical Services (INSTAT)

Covid-19 coincided with the 2020-21 census round and has negatively affected census and survey operations around the world. According to a report submitted to the 52nd session of the UN Statistical Commission, 121 countries were working for the current round of census and the majority of those reported that their census preparation was fully or partially affected by the Covid pandemic. Some countries had to postpone, and other countries were forced to cancel the census operation altogether. For the first time in 100 years, Nepal had to postpone the census. In many European countries, where population data collection is based on a continuously updated vital registration system, the census programme was not particularly affected.

As we are aware, the traditional method of data collection for the census and household-based surveys requires a personal interview with respondents. It is generally performed by a large number of enumerators and other field staff recruited on a temporary basis. Additional manpower is needed to train the field staff and to supply and manage the logistics. In summary, the census operation with the traditional method is hard to imagine without massive human contacts. For this reason, many countries had to postpone the census of the current round when the governments were forced to impose the ban on movement as well as in-door gatherings of people in large numbers. Disruption of the census has a serious impact not only on the timely release of highly demanded population statistics but also on several other household-based socio-economic surveys that use the census data to update their statistical framework.

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed that countries may face unexpected problems in obtaining vitally important socio-economic data through the census that users have been waiting on for an entire decade. We should take the current crisis not only as a problem but also as an opportunity to set new directions. For many countries, especially developing countries, this is an important time to think about restructuring their census organization and move towards a new system of vital registration based on the experiences of European countries. This is quite feasible, at least for the beginning, to countries with small and medium-sized populations. The number of such countries is sufficiently large. According to UN population data, more than 150 countries and territories have a population of less than thirty million.

Registration based data collection systems cannot be established overnight. It requires time and resources to be invested in the capacity development of local registration authorities. However, the ten-year period in the modern context of the availability of IT facilities is sufficiently long enough to establish such a system. The registration system may have a high initial cost at the time of building new capacities, but once it becomes viable to replace the decennial census, the initial investment will easily be paid off.

The registration system of collecting population data is also important for countries promoting self-governance by democratically elected local bodies. Registration empowers the local authorities to own, manage and utilize the statistical information under their control in the public interest. Local bodies would no longer have to rely on the centrally processed data. They can use the data under their possession for planning, implementing, and monitoring development activities. Locally available data greatly helps countries to address important issues of SDGs. It contributes to making progress on inclusiveness and parity among different social groups such as gender and ethnic minorities. It increases the efficiency of local authorities in providing basic social services such as education, health, and employment.

At the UN WDF in Bern, we are expected to discuss the thematic areas related to capacity development and leaving no one behind. The question of transition towards a vital registration system is very much relevant to both areas. We could also argue on significant benefits for data quality when the registration system is adopted. Even with the use of modern IT facilities, there is a considerable delay between the data collection and release of the census results. Often the public interest in census wanes after the preliminary results on major population figures are published. However, the policymakers and researchers have to wait for quite a long time for detailed statistics on many other variables that are not in high demand of ordinary users. In today's fast-changing world the census data quickly loses timeliness and relevance. By contrast, the data from the registration system are readily available at any point in time reducing the processing cost of the huge amount of national level census data. At the local level, the registration data can also be matched and verified through other data sources owned by different entities including the big data sources improving the coherence and consistencies of data from the different sources.

In the coming years, international development partners could work closely with NSOs in this direction so that the national statistical system is not vulnerable to pandemics or any other external shocks.