For months now, people living in British Columbia have looked on with envy at the amount of pandemic-related data being shared with Canadians living elsewhere.
In Ontario, for example, you can find out what case rates are in your neighbourhood. In Quebec, provincial health authorities publish infection numbers among various occupations. And in Alberta, you can see what the COVID-19 situation is in your local school.
In B.C., however, public-health authorities have taken a more proprietary position when it comes to much of this information – despite the call from disease experts and local politicians for a more granular look at what is going on at the community level.
Apparently, there are people inside the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, or individuals who have access to information being compiled by the centre, who feel the same way.
Someone recently leaked two reports that contain a detailed analysis on the situation in neighbourhoods in Surrey, the Metro Vancouver city hit hardest by the virus. It showed that in some of them, the case rate was nearly double the next worse-off area in the region – more than 20 per cent of tests in these areas were positive during the week of April 23 to 29. The reports also showed that vaccination rates in these troubled hubs were well below the provincial average.
Publication of the information in The Vancouver Sun immediately put Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry on the defensive. Her attempts to assert that her office was sharing as much information as other jurisdictions did not go well – namely because it’s not true. When her deputy, Dr. Réka Gustafson, suggested part of the problem was resources, it came across as a lame excuse. Dr. Henry would later outline some of the additional data that her office would now start making available on a regular basis, including neighbourhood “hot spot” maps that show where the virus is spiking. We’ll see.
The issue exploded on the political front Monday, with opposition politicians insisting that the NDP government’s decision to share a fraction of the data being collected by the centre was “disrespectful and harmful” and risked jeopardizing public trust in our institutions. (That ship has sailed.) Premier John Horgan maintained the public doesn’t care about much of this information – they just want the pandemic to be over (there may be some truth to this).
The fact is, Dr. Henry and the government have been very paternalistic when it’s come to sharing more specific COVID-related data with the public. They’ve justified not giving it out, in some cases, on the grounds it might lead to some communities being stigmatized and exposed to abuse.
But does that warrant keeping information out of the hands of the public that could help people make better decisions about where they travel and shop, for instance? It could well be that this data keeps people out of hard-hit neighbourhoods, helping reduce spread of the virus. Beyond that, most everyone in B.C. knows that Surrey is largely populated by South Asians, many of whom live in homes that offer sanctuary to multiple generations of family. This is not some secret. There are fears that this group will be unfairly targeted for abuse – but largely what we’ve seen so far is an outpouring of sympathy, because many of these people are poorly paid front-line workers who hold down several jobs.
Also, if the public had information about low vaccination rates in these communities, maybe it could incite inspired thinking about where clinics could be set up to reach more people, such as gurdwaras and mosques. There is far more to be gained than lost by getting as much information as possible into the hands of the public.
Right now, Dr. Henry and the government seem to be taking the view they know what’s best when it comes to disseminating the statistics they are gathering. This same information is being published elsewhere in the country, and has not led to neighbourhood shaming. It’s actually allowed politicians and various decision-makers to have reliable data upon which they can make informed policy directives.
I understand that the government doesn’t want thousands of people second-guessing their every move, but again, that is no justification for not providing information that rightfully belongs to the public. It suggests the government feels people can’t be trusted with the facts, so the data will be doled out on its terms instead. But more information is always better than less – even if that is a concept to which most governments are allergic.
By controlling the data, governments have a better chance of controlling the message. But that should never be a mantra in the middle of a pandemic – and it should never be a mantra that is acceptable to the public.
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