Pali Lehohla
Pali Lehohla

How coronavirus is almost obliterating 10 years of hard work

By Dr Pali Lehohla Time of article published Mar 22, 2020

Share this article:

JOHANNESBURG - The clock runs decennially for the 2020 Round of the Housing and Population Census that started in 2015 and ends in 2024. 

However the wicked problem risks scuppering the World Cup and the pride of national statisticians. 

And this may start with the United States where preparations for enumeration of the population are just days away. 

Coronavirus has struck at the heart of measurement and is almost obliterating ten years of hard work that focused on planning for the big moment.

National statistics offices win its stars and stripes by running the big one – the census of the population of their country.

But coronavirus is poised to destroy all that. I had the privilege of running three censuses for my country. I can feel for those whose hearts will sink at the prospect of the demise of the census due to coronavirus.

For the US this could be a very real and unfortunate prospect. The adrenalin that comes with it and the claims of society to refuse to participate if some of the long unmet promises are not fulfilled, is all part of the challenge.

The logistics are humongous despite technological advancements that have merged the mapping of dwellings and actual counting into one device. Within a month the results can be out.

Kenya released its results within two months. This is a far cry from slow moving statisticians. Technology has brightened the future. I have been invited to four countries including Egypt, Botswana, Mozambique and China for the release of their population census results. China is distinctly different from South Africa.

Although the census methods are the same and results congruous, the mental application of bureaucrats to these numbers are cheese and chalk. The Chinese indulge the numbers for policy purposes. The reality in South Africa is the opposite.

Coronavirus may have come at a bad time. But for Africa this may just be a good excuse for failing to run a census.  This year the continent was supposed to have had at least 26 of the 54 countries undertaking a census of the population. But only a quarter have thus far and maybe only half would do by the end of 2020.

Nigeria and Ethiopia failed to keep the promise. If only half the continent has census data, what does that do to Agenda 2063 and what becomes of Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement?

Another pipe dream for the continent.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa.


Share this article: