There's a popular saying among experts who deal in data that goes something like "we count what we care about, and disregard what we don't".

In New Zealand, we hear the phrase frequently, usually after someone has spent days trying to find information they've seen collected overseas and discovered it's not available here. Or if it is available, that it's out of date.

Most of the time journalists, economists, and policy-makers get around this by approximating - mashing together data sets, or using experts and anecdotes to make an educated guess until the information is made available. Most of the time, this works fine.


Except when it doesn't.

Right now, one of the biggest gaps we have is real-time information on unemployment. So far, we know an extra 30,000 people applied for New Zealand's main unemployment payment in the four weeks after the lockdown was announced.

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A total of 174,630 people were on the Jobseeker benefit on April 17, up from 145,006 at the same time in March.

But we don't know who those people are. What sector are they from? What age? What gender? Are they Maori or Pasifika or European? What kind of work were they in? Full-time? Part-time? Casual?

The Herald has asked the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) to provide demographic data for March, but it says it doesn't have it. The office of that department's minister, Carmel Sepuloni, also didn't have it. The best MSD could do, it said, was to release some of the information at the end of next week, when it made public its April data.

In comparison, the US releases the same kind of information - about age, ethnicity and gender within days. Australia takes two weeks, and the United Kingdom three.

The industries in which the losses are occurring, and what kind of work has gone, won't be known until at least June.


Statistics New Zealand has an employment survey coming out next week, but it looks back over the entire first quarter rather than specifically at the time we most need to see - the second half of March. That data won't tell us about the here and now. It won't give us the extent of the damage already incurred or what is to come.

Already, we have seen issues with collecting and reporting quality real-time data amid the pandemic.

First, it was in the way testing data was collated and fed back to the Ministry of Health, exposing the flaws of a devolved health system involving 12 regional Public Health Units across 20 district health board areas.

This included problems with contact tracing, where each unit had its own method for tracking cases, causing delays in finding and isolating potential patients, particularly in complex clusters.

Te Rōpū Whakakaupapa Urutā, the Māori pandemic response team, also raised concerns about whether those being tested for Covid-19 were having their ethnicity recorded correctly, or at all.

Dr Donna Cormack, from the University of Auckland, said ethnicity should have been a mandatory field on the test forms, but reporting guidelines weren't sent until after the community based assessment centres were set up and it wasn't clear if had been protocol before then.


"It's frustrating," she told the Herald. "We can't know what is happening to Māori as a community without the data.

"And if we haven't got it right for testing will we have it right for hospitalisation, or for resources if they become scarce?"

Cormack has grounds for concern. Historically, there has been an undercount of Māori in the health system, of up to 20 per cent. And because data is linked to resourcing, that undercount can have real life affects. The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website

Forecasts from Treasury show unemployment could continue to rise, particularly as the wage subsidy comes to an end. So far, we assume tourism, retail and hospitality have likely been hardest hit. In the US, measurements have shown that has meant ethnic minorities, teenagers and, in many cases, women, were losing jobs at a rate higher than other groups.

That would be a contrast to the last recession of 2008, when male-dominated industries like construction and finance bore the brunt.


And yet, so far, the types of projects the government has considered funding are in infrastructure - water, transport, clean energy and buildings - sectors dominated by men.

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This week, the Social Development Minister announced extra initiatives by MSD to keep people in work. One of those was a free online community health course, to upskill those out of work into caring jobs.

But if that choice was made without data, who knows if it will be the right thing to help.

If there are a proliferation of 19-year-old full-time bartenders out of work in Queenstown, for example, will training them for part-time jobs in Tauranga really be best? Equally, do we want low-paid part-time cleaners, out of work because their clients can no longer afford them, simply shunted into another form of low-paid, part-time work? Should we think about higher-level education and training? What about free childcare to enable that education?

Undoubtedly, government agencies are working around the clock to respond to an unprecedented crisis. However, this situation shows decision-making is still not being based on the timely provision of appropriate data.

Knowing who is worst affected should drive the policy response. Having that information quickly will be key. That could mean changing the way we do things, and choosing to count what we care about now, instead of what we've prioritised in the past.