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OPINION: Tight grip on COVID-19 case data throttles the public interest

'Without information there is speculation, and that can discredit communities or give rise to harmful rumour'
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A positive swab test for COVID-19. Photo: Getty Images

When we need to fight for information, the cliché we clutch as journalists is that “sunlight is the best disinfectant” – that the public interest is more likely to be served when we know the most.

Since the first infections of the coronavirus hit British Columbia, the approach to public information transparency has been, at best, tentative. While we have been alerted to the epicentres of outbreaks, health authorities have largely kept veiled the available data on where the caseloads are housed.

The result is that we don’t know terribly much about the situations in our neighbourhoods, unless there is a nearby long-term care facility in siege. We learn a reasonable amount about where the problem started, but not how it has spread and resides in our communities.

In the absence of clarity, we are susceptible to hearsay, and that can give rise to all sorts of products of moral panic – false beliefs, invidious assumptions, even mishandling of available evidence.

We are being asked to act as adults, but we are not always being treated as adults when it comes to trusting us with information. The mixture of orders and recommendations has attempted to mitigate the public health risks but has rendered an unclear signal on the severity and particularly the proximity of the greatest threats.

Initially, the province told us there were privacy concerns that prevented disclosure of the whereabouts of the cases. Lately it has backed away from that rationale but not replaced it with a clear statement on why we are not getting the deepest possible dive into the status of the pandemic.

Science tells us we learn more from what we see than from what we hear.

Take a look at what the Peel Regional Health Authority to the west of Toronto has been producing. Peel is in the red zone of Ontario right now, with the heaviest restrictions anywhere in the country. A map (available here) is detailed and granular nearly to the level of city blocks on the intensity of infection. It depicts the value of staying indoors. 

Now, compare that vivid information to what we’re getting from the Fraser Health Authority, where there is roughly two-thirds of the B.C. caseload at the moment. What we get is a list of places where and when you might have been exposed.

But no map – no indication in the vast Fraser Health jurisdiction, sprawling from Burnaby to Chilliwack, about the incidence rate within the boundary. Helpful to an extent, but a very limited extent.

Why is that?

If you’re living there, wouldn’t you want to know where the cases are stationed? If you’re living outside it, wouldn’t you also want to know where the cases are in your own communities?

To date authorities have been veiled in specifying where. They’ve characterized the rise in cases as due to large indoor gatherings beyond the intimate social bubble. Without information there is speculation, and that can discredit communities or give rise to harmful rumour. Vagueness at this crucial time might have its reasoning – and certainly the identification of an infected household is going too far. But there has to be a sweeter spot in between what we have and what would be more useful. The failure to trust the public with enough facts to draw reasonable conclusions can’t be helpful in fashioning the optimal culture in most dire period yet of the pandemic.

There appears to be no appeal on this matter.

The provincial law on freedom of information is laden with discretion for government to deny requests for data, and these exemptions on legal advice, cabinet confidences, privacy and public risk are tried and tested methods to maintain an environment of defensive denial of the right to know.

Of course, the law also compels the head of a public body to “disclose information relating to a risk of significant harm to people or the environment, or where disclosure is clearly in the public interest.” But we gave up on that provision long ago.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.

This article was originally published by Business in Vancouver.