'Flattening the curve' in social services

The COVID-19 Social Data Bank initiative by the NUS Social Service Research Centre seeks to aid social services in identifying gaps and emerging trends during the pandemic.

| By Dr Ong Qiyan |

Public health experts and government officials around the world have adopted the strategy of “flattening the curve” in managing the COVID-19 pandemic. While attention has been paid to managing infection spikes to prevent the healthcare system from being overwhelmed, social services have also experienced a surge in demand for assistance that threatens to overwhelm the sector’s capacity to cope. Apart from financial hardships arising from loss of employment and income due to social distancing orders and lockdowns, prolonged time spent at home, and the terrible uncertainty about infection and the future also culminated in an increase in the number of households with family violence and mental health challenges. Singapore has not been spared.

Researchers from the Social Service Research Centre (SSR) at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences believe that the same strategy of flattening the curve should also be adopted by the social service sector. The research team started the COVID-19 Social Data Bank in early May and have been providing weekly updates on social service provision and use during the pandemic.

As a 12-week research collaboration with social service professionals which started since 11 May 2020, the COVID-19 Social Data Bank demonstrates how crisis research, presented in the form of regular and frequent bitesize research findings, may aid social services in identifying gaps and emerging trends during the pandemic. Each week, social service professionals from social service agencies and voluntary welfare organisations contribute anonymised data about their clients and their work. SSR researchers then generate weekly summaries, data trends, and highlight areas of potential concerns, underutilised resources, and service gaps in the form of a one-page infographic for social service professionals.

The researchers adopted a dynamic and pragmatic approach to crisis research. As local and international policies rapidly evolved in response to the unpredictable nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, SSR researchers have deliberately avoided pre-defining the scope of research and its outputs. In addition to a core set of questions, the Data Bank builds in flexibility and allows for questions to be incorporated to gain insights into emerging trends and new areas of concern. Likewise, to ensure that the findings from the Data Bank remain timely and relevant, the theme and content of each week’s infographic are only determined after the most recent data has been processed and analysed.

Trend table.png

Trends in presenting issues of social service clients from the COVID-19 Social Data Bank

So far, the Data Bank which has information of about 370 social service users across 10 organisations, reveals that the COVID-19 outbreak has severely affected many households in terms of material hardship, mental-wellbeing and family stability.

Based on the presenting issues reported by clients of Family Service Centres in the past five weeks, the Data Bank shows that although the proportion of households experiencing material hardship remains high, financial assistance from the government and non-government sources appeared to have prevented further worsening of material hardship observed during the Circuit Breaker (CB) period.

However, trends pertaining to reported family issues, family violence and mental well-being were mixed. For instance, while family violence issues appeared to have improved post-CB, spousal violence reported an uptick. Mental health conditions also appeared to have generally improved post-CB, but not for suicide ideation. Overall, these findings suggest that while financial aid and the lifting of the CB are helpful for alleviating some of the social challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, many households may continue to experience severe and long-drawn effects on their mental well-being and family stability.

While the statistics from the Data Bank are useful references, understanding the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak and the lived experiences of the users and providers of social services behind these statistics requires further efforts. Hence, the researchers plan to engage social service professionals to deliberate and co-create interpretations of the Data Bank findings going forward through online discussions going forward. With these efforts, the Data Bank will start new discussions about strategic planning of social service delivery and contribute to the crisis preparedness of the social service sector.

About the author


Dr Ong Qiyan is Deputy Director (Research) with the Social Service Research Centre at the NUS Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. She specialises in using behavioural and applied economics to study individual decision-making and the effects and performances of different policy designs. Her research spans a range of behavioural domains.