Researchers lead multi-university study to track economic impacts of COVID-19

Researchers at Stellenbosch University (SU) this week launched the Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (CRAM), a collaborative research project across three universities which will track the social and economic impacts of COVID-19 in South Africa.

The study will survey a nationally representative sample of 10,000 South Africans every month for the next six months using telephone surveys, focusing on unemployment, household income, child hunger and access to government grants.

The aim of the researchers is to inform policy-makers and help direct relief efforts to where they are most needed, and to determine if those relief efforts are working as intended

“Our number one aim in all of this is to help policy-makers make the best decisions in these difficult times," says the Principal Investigator of the study, Dr Nic Spaull of the SU Economics Department. “Encouragingly, all data emerging from the project will be made freely available to download on the DataFirst platform immediately as it becomes available."

He explains the rationale of the study and the collaborative nature of the work: “We know that the coronavirus pandemic is the largest shock of our generation and it's already having profound social and economic impacts on our country. When we started seeing the data coming out of China, Italy and Spain we knew this was going to devastate our economy and trigger a global recession."

This prompted Spaull and NRF Research Chair in the SU Department of Economics, Prof Servaas van der Berg, to take action. “I mean, we were all asking ourselves what can we do to help? What is the role of researchers when faced with a global pandemic and economic catastrophe? And maybe it's just because we're economists and when all you've got is a hammer, everything looks like nail, but we kept coming back to the same thing, we need good data! Practically all surveys have stopped because enumerators can't go into the field and collect data…There won't even be CPI data this year" said Spaull.

In order for the study to be nationally representative, the researchers realised they'd need to use telephone surveys and to link the new study to a pre-existing survey. That would allow them to use the mobile phone numbers of existing sample participants.

“In order to be nationally-representative we wanted to link into one of the existing surveys targeting income and social dynamics. So I reached out to colleagues at the University of Cape Town (UCT) to find out about the possibility of extending the National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS) which is a nationally representative panel survey focusing on income and social dynamics. We wanted to include a mobile phone 'update' of NIDS to see how things are changing on the ground. Long story short, the Department of Planning Monitoring and Evaluation in the Presidency were incredibly helpful with facilitating permissions to use the data, as well as all the researchers at the Southern African Labour Development Research Unit (SALDRU) who are the implementing agent of NIDS and now also co-investigators on the project and the implementing agent of NIDS-CRAM. It's really been incredible to see how collaborative everyone has been."

Fortuitously for the project, the Dean of the SU Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, Professor Ingrid Woolard, was one of the Principal Investigators of the NIDS study at UCT before she moved to Stellenbosch.

“NIDS has been collecting data on the same 28,000 people for more than a decade so we have very rich data on the life courses of these individuals prior to the COVID crisis," says Woolard. “The CRAM data is going to provide a statistically rigorous picture of the devastation created by the virus in order to inform timeous and targeted policy interventions. It's been tremendously encouraging to see how quickly DPME agreed to making the sample available for this important work."

Areas of work

Spaull is joined by eight co-investigators across SU, UCT and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits): Professor Dori Posel (Wits), Dr Gabrielle Wills (SU), Dr Nwabisa Makaluza (SU), Professor Reza Daniels (UCT), Professor Ronelle Burger (SU), Professor Rulof Burger (SU), Professor Servaas van der Berg (SU), Professor Vimal Ranchhod (UCT) and David Carel (SU) who each head up different areas related to Sampling, Social Welfare, Labour and Firms, Health and COVID-19 and the NIDS operations.

“I think the project is really exciting. It's the first nationally-representative survey and it helps us get at important things that internet surveys can't. From its launch going forward, the survey will be able to provide close to real-time updates on whether health system capacity constraints, fears about contracting the virus and disruption to transport networks are affecting access to healthcare. We'll also be able to see the interactions between access to healthcare, receipt of grants and employment. That's really important for policymakers, to adapt and adjust policy responses in this uncertain environment," says Burger of the SU Economics Department and expert on health economics.

Dr Nwabisa Makaluza, a researcher in the Research on Socioeconomic Policy Group (RESEP) in the SU Economics Department, comments: “Given the extreme inequalities we have in South Africa, it's critical that we are also capturing what is happening at the lower end of the income distribution – those that don't have jobs. Internet surveys under-report the poor and therefore miss out on what I think is the most important question at the moment: how is COVID-19 affecting the lives of the most marginalized people in South Africa? I think CRAM can help us answer that question."

Adds Van Der Berg: “It was clear from the beginning that a telephone survey would create new challenges. One of those was finding a good sampling frame with telephone numbers. Fortunately we could use the NIDS sample. Another challenge is to keep the survey short, much shorter than for a fieldwork questionnaire. There are so many things we would like to know, but we had to focus on priorities. Our main concern is what information it could provide to assist policy making."

The project quickly gained momentum and added collaborators from other departments and universities, concludes Spaull. The group of CRAM researchers is now made up of more than 30 researchers across five universities.

The CRAM study will include six waves, one wave per month for the next six months. Wave 1 of CRAM began this week and will continue until the end of May 2020. The results of Wave 1 are expected mid June and will be available on the CRAM website:


  • The project has received formal endorsement by the National Planning Commission, the National Treasury and the Department of Planning Monitoring and Evaluation in the Presidency and is funded by three donors: the Allan and Gill Gray Philanthropy, the FEM Education Foundation and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.


Martin Viljoen 

Manager: Media 

Corporate Communication Division

e: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  |  t: +27 21 808 4921  |  c: +27 82 775 2396  


© 2021 Department of Science and Innovations . All Rights Reserved.