National Post (National Edition)
An outrageous stifling of vital pandemic facts
It is ironic, but not surprising, that one of the most compelling recent data points on COVID-19 transmission should come not from a Canadian government or public health agency, but from many people's favourite corporate villain, Walmart. “Nearly 700 … employees across Canada have tested positive for COVID-19 this month,” the retail colossus told The Globe and Mail this week.
Walmart is a big company, but 700 is still a big number: Roughly one in every 130 employees, and one in every 200 cases reported in Canada in December. There seems no reason to believe Walmart, as compared to any other large retailer, would be uniquely affected. And we likely never would have known if Walmart hadn't come clean (as it routinely has over the course of the pandemic, to its credit). Among Canadian provinces, only Alberta routinely reports and names the locations of confirmed outbreaks in the private sector.
This is, in a word, outrageous — not least in Ontario, which is unapologetically privileging big-box retail over small-box during the “provincewide shutdown” that began today at 12:01 a.m. Anywhere that sells groceries can stay open, peddling anything it likes — televisions, footwear, holiday tchotchkes — while its competitors on Main Street are restricted to online or curbside pickup.
To justify this distinction, the province has provided nothing at all. Since Sept. 1, Ontario public health units have traced 411 outbreak-related cases to the absurdly broad category labelled “retail.” That's just five per cent of outbreak-related cases recorded in private-sector workplaces, covering big-box and small-box retail alike.
Among essential workplaces, it's farms and food-processing facilities that continue to let the side down: together they account for roughly 40 per cent of cases both since Sept. 1 and in total. More cases have been linked to food-processing facilities so far in December than in any previous month. The only mention farms or food-processing facilities warrant in the 28-page “provincewide shutdown” plan is to confirm that they are allowed to stay open.
Meanwhile, the category even more absurdly named “workplace — other” has bloated to the point where it represents 41 per cent of private-sector outbreak-related cases all on its own. Are those workplaces affected by the provincewide shutdown? We can only guess, and worry that they aren't.
Governments can't tell us anything conclusively, of course: Less than 20 per cent of December's cases in Ontario have been traced to outbreaks, and roughly the same number are classified as having an unknown source. But that doesn't excuse not providing the data available, and nor do the usual yawning appeals to “privacy.”
“As the exposure risk is confined to the workplace and there is a complete list of employees for followup, there is no need to publicly disclose the name or address of the workplace,” Peel Region's medical officer of health, Dr. Jessica Hopkins, said on the subject of a 75-strong outbreak back in March. “This long-standing public health approach protects the privacy and security of those involved.”
It's almost funny, it's so ludicrous. We're meant to accept that our most basic charter rights are subject to abridgement — mobility, assembly, association, religious observance — but that “long-standing public health approach(es)” are immutable with respect to corporations and their employees, even when balanced against a consumer's right not to patronize an establishment that can't keep COVID-19 under control. Alas, it's entirely of a piece with Canadian officialdom's principled objection to providing the peasants any information at all.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed his government's failure to reform Ottawa's utterly broken access-to-information system in a recent interview with The Canadian Press, as only he could. “There's always going to be a balance,” he said, citing the principle of cabinet confidentiality, which is not remotely the issue. The issue is the sort of insanity journalist Justin Ling tweeted about on Wednesday: It took three years for the RCMP to provide him with 14 pages of benign, totally unredacted documents.
The idea of “balance” is central to Canadian Liberals, and it can work wonders. Early on in the pandemic, Trudeau spoke of the need to find a “balance” between airline passengers' self-evident right to a refund for trips on airplanes that never took off and the airlines' desire to keep their money. By rights a pitchfork-wielding mob should have chased him into the canal.
Balance is a good thing, generally. But trouble arises when you're so dedicated to balance that you can't spot situations where it won't work. This year has presented Trudeau's government with a good few of those, and one hopes it noticed. A balanced approach to Sino-Canadian relations — Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne refusing to say the word “Taiwan,” for example — hasn't gotten the Two Michaels released. A balanced approach to pandemic management saw us shipping tons of personal protective equipment to China with no replacement stock available on the principle that COVID-19 was almost certainly “a low risk to Canada.” A balanced approach to pandemic data release is keeping us all in the dark.
It's not Trudeau's fault that provinces and municipalities guard outbreak data like dog owners guard the sausages, but he could set the better example that he promised. And regular Canadians need to come to grips with the real-life consequences of this opacity-by-default. Ninety-nine years out of 100, they can safely dismiss it as a niche concern of uppity journalists. This is the year the piper demands payment: COVID-19 is out there spreading, and the vast majority of our governments are bound and determined that we not know where, and our health and livelihoods lie precariously in the balance.