South Africa’s cash-starved and short-staffed statistics agency is doing more with less to measure the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the economy.

Statistics South Africa has been under the whip since 2015, when the government cut its budget by R160 million and imposed a freeze on new jobs. In February, the South African Statistics Council, a panel that advises government and the statistician-general on issues affecting data, warned that the agency had reached a crisis point after exhausting all efficiencies.

Still, Statistics South Africa started publishing a weekly consumer price index for essential products shortly after the nation entered one of the world’s most severe lockdowns. It also printed two in a planned series of business impact surveys, which show how companies are faring under restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of the virus.

“We are in a unique circumstance,” Patrick Kelly, the agency’s chief director for price statistics, said in an interview. “There’s a really heightened demand for data to inform policy decisions and it’s almost like people, whatever field that they are in, are screaming out for data.”

The impact of the virus has nevertheless delayed many of the agency’s regular releases. The mining, manufacturing and retail data due this week are from February – before the first case of the pandemic was confirmed in South Africa. Unemployment data for the first quarter will only be published on June 9 and economic growth numbers for the three months through March are now scheduled for June 30.

Tapping the web

The pandemic and subsequent travel restrictions have also forced the agency to change the way it collects data. It used to dispatch about 100 fieldworkers with a combined 70 000 forms into 25 different areas of the country to track changes in the price of goods. Now, data for 170 goods that comprise the 412 items in the inflation basket for April – the first full month of lockdown – are being gathered from retailers’ websites by 12 staff, Kelly said.

As usual, data for non-monthly inflation survey items will be compiled by a team from head office, while imputations will be used for products such as alcoholic beverages and tobacco that weren’t legally available for sale during the lockdown, he said.

While its use of prices by skilled fieldworkers is reliable and works well for the inflation print, the agency has established relationships with major retail chains and is reviewing the use of scanner data for surveys. For now, it receives detailed data on product sales from retailers annually, which it can use to assess the weighting of its inflation basket, Kelly said.

The virus and subsequent use of data collected via web-based and telephonic polls is accelerating the rate at which the agency plans to deploy new data collection methods, and the census in 2021 is set to rely more on new techniques than face-to-face interviews, he said.

While the government set aside R117.6 million for the statistics office for the three years through fiscal 2023 in the February Budget, that could be affected by a reallocation of resources to fund a R500 billion stimulus package to soften the impact of the disease. An adjustment budget is due to be finalised in June.

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