How Canada’s crucial data gaps are hindering the coronavirus pandemic response

Good long read on data gaps. Have excerpted the intro and the section on the lack of visible and ethnic minority data:

Gaps in key health and economic data are hindering Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving Canadians in the dark about who is being infected or struggling with the devastated economy, say researchers, politicians and scientists.

These blind spots could blunt the federal economic rescue effort, hide inequities in deaths from the disease and slow our emergence from self-isolation in the months ahead. Experts are urging provincial and federal leaders to open up more streams of data immediately, as doing so might save lives and livelihoods.

Canada has a long-standing problem of information gaps, The Globe and Mail found in a year-long series, and that has left us vulnerable during public health crises before. A government audit found that during the 2009 swine flu pandemic, data deficiencies left the Public Health Agency of Canada “unable to answer basic questions such as the rate of spread” of the virus.


Nationally, the ethnicity of those who have been infected or have died is unknown. Because of data gaps, the death toll likely is being underestimated.

On the economic front, Canadians don’t know how many in each province are applying for employment insurance every week (as the United States does by state). They don’t have up-to-date numbers on bankruptcies, mortgages in arrears, how workers in the gig economy are faring, the extent of layoffs or the degree to which the federal government’s plan for an enhanced wage-subsidy program has spurred rehiring.

Arjumand Siddiqi, the division head of epidemiology at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said she and her colleagues are eager to help analyze the fast-moving crisis to a greater extent, but have been stalled by a lack of detailed figures on the demographics and locations of confirmed cases, among other things.

“We have the will, we have the expertise, but we don’t have the data,” she said. “It would be good to know what is actually happening.”

One of the most pressing gaps, Dr. Siddiqi said, is information about the ethnicity of those who have tested positive for COVID-19 or died of the disease. No Canadian province makes this data available, in keeping with a long-standing national aversion to publishing statistics about racial disparities in health. (Toronto’s Medical Officer of Health, Eileen de Villa, has announced that the city is exploring ways to collect race-based coronavirus data on its own.)

But there is reason to suspect race may be a factor in determining who is being infected and dying from the virus, Dr. Siddiqi said, both because of the prevalence of various underlying health conditions in some racialized communities, and their over-representation in low-wage jobs such as nursing, delivery and retail, which make them highly prone to exposure to the virus. Early U.S. data indicate that black Americans are being admitted to hospital and dying from COVID-19 at a disproportionate rate.

“We are very clear that we want to know who is at risk,” Dr. Siddiqi said. “But we’re just very hesitant – and that’s kind of putting it mildly – to add race to the set of dividing factors that we’re willing to entertain.”

This blind spot extends to Indigenous people, whose health care is largely provided by the federal government. NDP MP Charlie Angus would like to change that. In a letter to Health Minister Patty Hajdu last week, he urged the government to start keeping data on COVID-19 cases among Indigenous people, saying, “It would be irresponsible at this time to turn a blind eye to the movement of COVID through vulnerable populations.”

“It seems bloody obvious that you would want to track this and make policy based on this information,” he said in an interview. “I think there’s a naive arrogance in the principle of saying: ‘We’re not the United States, we don’t have their problems, we don’t discriminate like that.’ ”

Even government-funded groups such as the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) have begun calling for race-based data around coronavirus cases. The organization now supports the idea of health care providers asking a common question about the race of COVID-19 patients and says it would be willing to compile the data.

“The COVID pandemic is certainly exposing gaps in important data flows within and between health care systems in Canada,” CIHI spokeswoman Alex Maheux said.

Source: How Canada’s crucial data gaps are hindering the coronavirus pandemic response ‘We have the will, we have the expertise, but we don’t have the data’: Nationally, the lack of coronavirus-related health and economic data is stalling efforts to analyze the fast-moving COVID-19 crisis

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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