Trimestrale di cultura civile

Science is at Work: Supporting Decision-Making

  • FEB 2021
  • Alessandra Zampieri

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We are facing a crisis with no borders. Europe is one of the most affected regions by the pandemic and the consequent economic downturn. A common emergency requires common and coordinated strategies.

In this article, Alessandra Zampieri, Head of Unit responsible for the Disaster Risk Management at the Joint Research Center (JRC) of the European Commission, sheds light on the contribution that the JRC has been providing to deal with the crisis. A pioneering use of Big Data, reliable scientific models and an accurate communication are powerful tools in the hands of the supranational institutions to handle the health, economic and social emergency that broke in our lives.

I am the Head of Unit responsible for Disaster Risk Management at the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission. The JRC is the science and knowledge service of the European Commission and our mission is to support policy making with independent evidence throughout the whole policy cycle. We are present in five Member States and we have more or less three thousand researchers delivering scientific results to colleagues in Brussels and to Member States on different topics.

We have been doing this also during the Covid-19 pandemic, since December 2019. Indeed, the JRC’s media surveillance system first picked up media reports about a new coronavirus in Wuhan very early in the crisis, on December 31, 2019. We operate this technology in collaboration with the World Health Organisation in the framework of the EIOS (Epidemic Intelligence from Open Source) system. Since then, we have been providing these informations continuously to support the WHO, scanning everyday hundred thousands of news open-source, in various languages.

The WHO has now asked us to also help against the fake news and the famous infodemics.

In the first months of this year, it became clear that the crisis was moving to the West and it was reaching Europe. We therefore started to collect data, to create ad hoc databases, to provide maps, analyses, situational awareness reports and forecasts to help not only colleagues in Brussels, but all Member States and citizens to monitor how the spread of the virus was moving throughout Europe.

Big Data analysis
On March 11, when the pandemic was declared, our website was already been launched, one of the very first to provide data at national and subnational level. And it was quite unique for that time. With these data and our first epidemiological model we were able to provide relevant authorities, including the President of the Commission, with prediction of picks and information on trends in case and deaths counts by Member States. We studied how non-pharmaceutical measures could have contributed to flatten the curve and reduce the spread of the virus. Moreover, we analyzed the need of pharmaceutical products and medical equipment.

We successfully employed JRC pioneering skills in Big Data analysis to this study, and especially to the interpretation of mobile phone data. For the first time, mobile phone operators accepted to provide the Commission with aggregated anonymized data, which JRC staff used to gain better insight on the spread of the virus and the impact of mobility on it. Several technical reports have been published and both Commissioner Gabriel and Commissioner Breton have stressed the import of these analyses. While other mobility indicators exist, these data are more precise and have helped us to refine our models; we are very thankful to the mobile phone operators who have trusted us to give us access to these datasets.

The worsening epidemiological situation, made apparent the importance of carrying out testing of the population. At this regard, the JRC drafted and the Commission adopted guidelines on testing; we also designed a new reference material that laboratories can use to check the correct functioning of their coronavirus tests and avoid false negatives.

We have been delivering this material to hospitals and laboratories in Europe, but also outside Europe.

In that period the Commission adopted a very important Communication, providing suggestions and recommendations for an exit strategy. From the onset it was clear that the crisis was a health but also an economic crisis; for this reason we developed a deescalation model linking health and economic indicators to identify sectors suitable to reopen to sustain the economy without representing a threat to public health.

The European Commission, in particular the Secretariat General, established a Clearinghouse with the task of identifying and overcoming possible bottlenecks in the availability of strategic medical devices. At that time, it was difficult to find ventilators or masks on the market, the health systems were under extreme pressure and these medical supplies were sold out or blocked at the borders; the Clearinghouse was very active to help Member States finding these products. The JRC did not spare efforts to support this work, including providing daily forecast of intensive care units.

A Summer break
In Summer, the epidemiological situation started to improve, the pick of the health crisis was over and people were more positive also towards tourism. The Commission adopted a Communication on transport and tourism and the JRC created a website “Re-open EU” with all the relevant information for tourists. Millions of visitors regularly access the website, an important success of the Commission. The same package adopted by the Commission gave the task to the JRC, in partnership with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, to produce and make available maps on the epidemiological situation at the regional level.

As the economic crisis worsened, the Commission put forward numerous measures to help Member States overcome it. JRC economist provided major support for the economic analyses, including the development of the European spring economic forecast and the New Generation proposal. A lot of work has been carried out on resilience to support Commissioner Šefovi and the whole Commission to help Member States recover and bounce forward.

The answer to the infodemic threat
The Commission did not underestimate disinformation and hybrid threats and the risks associated with them. In June, it specifically adopted measures to fight these risks, as 

the infodemic was already clearly threatening the Union. JRC experts in this field helped drafting these measures suggesting viable countermeasures often addressing younger Europeans.

Other JRC work related to Covid looked at citizens. We have been constantly tracking their sentiments during the health crises and we could observe that at the beginning citizens were more worried about their health: their searches in Google were looking more into the possible effects of the virus on their health. Slowly, with the situation improving, they started to look into opportunities to help others and show solidarity, and finally they started to search again touristic destinations and organization of their holidays. We have also carried out research on the impact that the crisis had on existing divides, like gender, and on how the crisis impacted students’ learning depending on their cultural and social environment.

Currently we continue to support the Commission monitoring the spread of the virus and the epidemiological situation. The Commission adopted a Communication on lessons learnt and recommendations for the Member States in case of a second wave, which the JRC contributed to draft.

But even more, we want to look ahead and we know that from this crisis we can bounce forward: it is not a question of going back to the past, but really trying to enhance resilience and be better prepared for the future. Therefore, we do our foresight analysis building on the three pillars of the Commission priorities: the green, the digital and the economy.

Alessandra Zampieri graduated in Economics at the University of Genova. She is Head of Disaster Risk Management Unit at the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission. She also manages the Knowledge Centre on Migration and Demography (KCMD).

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