Last Friday, British Columbia Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix gave a master class in treating the public like adults. It was a model for any government dealing with a crisis.
First, Dr. Henry walked viewers through the statistical models the province is using, and the reasons why the evidence leads her to believe the province may be on the point of getting the upper hand on COVID-19. Her explanations were clear and careful. There was no obfuscation or bluster.
After Dr. Henry had presented and analyzed the data on the spread of the virus and the public health measures taken, Mr. Dix itemized the province’s key resources – from ventilators to hospital beds – and measured their availability against three scenarios: a modest outbreak (South Korea), medium (China’s Hubei province) and bad (northern Italy).
It inspired confidence. Transparency does that.
A free and transparent flow of data will help win public support and trust. A lot is being asked of Canadians and without public buy-in, Canada will not succeed in bending the curve.
Making more data public helps any large organization, be it a company or a bureaucracy, to self-correct. Governments need to gather as much information as possible on the COVID-19 outbreak and the health-care system’s response, and they need to release it all. That way, an entire world of epidemiologists, doctors and other scientists can spot problems, call out errors and speed up the finding of solutions.
In B.C. last Friday, Dr. Henry and Mr. Dix gave everyone in the province a clearer picture of the situation, while adding to the global store of knowledge. It’s exactly what’s needed as this country figures out the virus and hones its strategies to fight it.
Canada has long-standing problems with data. Across the spectrum of life and business, our governments don’t collect, compile or release enough of it – a problem The Globe and Mail has been investigating for the past year. Decisions are only as good as the information underpinning them. During this pandemic, all necessary data must be gathered, and there is no reason not to make it public.
B.C. is an example of doing it right. Others need improvement. In Ontario, journalists are still digging up data that the provincial government should be releasing, and discovering information gaps that may prove costly.
The CBC, using leaked internal reports from Critical Care Services Ontario, found many more people confirmed as suspected cases of COVID-19 in hospital intensive-care beds than the province was officially reporting. The Globe and Mail, after being unable to obtain statistics on the scale of the outbreak in Ontario nursing homes from provincial health authorities, surveyed the province’s local health units and discovered that 26 long-term facilities had reported cases of the virus. Our tally of Ontario fatalities shows that the majority of those killed by the virus as of Tuesday were residents of nursing homes.
The extent of the challenge in seniors’ homes is significant, which is why information about their status matters. They are a major front in the war against the virus. A key failing in Ontario is that the relevant data the province collects and publishes is sometimes thin. The lessons of SARS have not been learned well enough.
In a review of how Ontario handled the deadly 2003 outbreak, a lack of data and transparency were cited as fatal mistakes. Similar mistakes are happening again. Gaps still exist.
Stories have abounded of Ontarians waiting the better part of a week, or more, for virus test results – and the province’s own public data confirmed it. It showed a huge backlog of tests awaiting processing.
On Monday, however, the province’s regular update of COVID-19 information was changed to remove data on the test backlog.
It may have been an oversight, but it generated an outcry. The crucial data point was quickly reinstated.
And what the data show is that the number of tests being administered in the province is rising, and the processing of results has risen even faster. The backlog is being cleared. Public information on what was going wrong pushed the system into focusing on making it right.
Canadians need to know how Canada is doing – where we’re succeeding and where we need to do better. We’re all in this together. Transparency has never been more important.