Title image for briefing 11 - Knowledge is Power

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Knowledge is Power: So Why is BC Hiding COVID-19 Data?

Streamed Tuesday, February 22, 12:00 – 1:00 pm PST

Journalism Professor Sean Holman and reporter Brishti Basu discuss the challenges of obtaining timely data to support pandemic coverage in the BC media. In this briefing, we address the relative lack of public Covid-19 data compared to other provinces, and explore the vital and urgent need for transparency in this time of abundant misinformation.

Brishti Basu is a journalist with Capital Daily, primarily covering social issues and the COVID-19 pandemic. Her work has appeared in VICE, the BBC, National Geographic, The Tyee and several other publications.

Sean Holman is Associate Professor and Wayne Crookes Professor of Environmental and Climate Journalism at the University of Victoria, a former investigative journalist, and the founding editor of the pioneering online investigative political news service Public Eye.

The discussion is facilitated by Kerri Coombs, an independent documentary producer, founder of FireDance Media, PoP BC broadcast technician, and former privacy policy officer in the Freedom of Information department for Cornwall Council in the UK.

Government and Public Health have a duty to provide information that will provide clarity and timely data for families, business and organisations if they are to make risk assessments for themselves, employees and clients.

Without access to public health data, we risk increasing the spread of current and new variants, and cultivating public distrust in the Government’s handling of an ongoing pandemic emergency.

Briefing Notes:

BC’s disclosed data incomplete, inconsistent, contradictory; so why is transparency needed in government?

SH:

We value info in democracies because more information gives us better control about world around us and allows us to better predict the future. If the government withholds information, people will try to get control and certainty other ways with conspiracy theories and authoritarianism.

BB:

In the context of the global pandemic, experts say BC is slowest in sharing data with global jurisdictions and scientists.

What about privacy concerns? The government has used this as an excuse to withhold information, but governments aren’t entitled to privacy from public, it’s the other way around.

SH:

In Canada, privacy has been used as a shield against accountability. Governments have thwarted FOIA requests. Privacy is about government not being able to see what citizens are doing. When it’s vice versa, that’s secrecy, not privacy. Ironically, the BC NDP brought in the FOIA law, but now are doing all they can to erode transparency.

BB:

The Vancouver Sun leaked that BC government was collecting neighbourhood level data. Everyone wanted more granulated data but Dix said there were privacy concerns with sharing that data. The government said that this was ‘first time they had assembled that data’ but these reports had been created for internal purposes since 3/4/2021. After leak, BCNDP has been making those data available to public.

SH:

BC has attracted international kudos over Dr. Henry’s initial handling of the pandemic, but it’s gaslighting because we’re not doing as well, even though we say we are. That kind of gaslighting makes people feel destabilized because they experience reality differently. This results in psychological damage.

If the public has no information, government feels they can can control public response and make the public response more predictable.

The Canadian Association of Journalists gave BCNDP code of silence award. How does BC compare to jurisdictions around the world with regards to access to information?

BB:

In recent months, response times have gotten better, usually within a few days. But the quality of responses is lacking. They won’t clarify issues, send reporters to publicly available sources like the BCCDC website. It takes weeks to get interviews with officials.

Asking MOH was how BB was found out that positive COVID test was not required for referral to long COVID. This should be publicly available information, but the question had to be asked to for an answer to be given.

The BC FOIA system has “insanely long timelines” and is unreliable for reportage.

SH:

If we can’t get access to government records, this makes public rely on information that government will supply. In other words, propaganda. Again, when information ceases to give us an accurate understanding of and some sense of control over reality, people are attracted to disinformation and conspiracy theories and evidence based democracy is eroded, ultimately leading to fascism.

The increase in government secrecy started with Harper, who muzzled scientists and centralized message control in his own office, and it seems the subsequent government hasn’t changed that approach. Is this a global trend, or unique to Canada?

SH:

The interest in government transparency really started in the aftermath of the Second World War. Allied countries questioned why there were 2 World Wars in close succession.

The western world decided if only Germans had true, undistorted information about what Nazis were doing, the German people would have never allowed it. “Evidence leads to action” spread through the world as a central tenet of democracy.

The obligation to endure gives us the right to know (Silent Spring author Rachel Carson’s favourite quote). But ever since the 80s, FOI rights have been eroding. The 1970s were the nadir of FOI movement.

What pieces of critical information were missing for you to carry out your journalism? Have you been able to look at the government’s sources? How much time journalists spend on reviewing science nowadays instead of relying on experts to feed them information?

SH:

Some times public leaders cite studies. Figures get thrown out in rapid succession during pressers with no time to ask for sources. BB can’t find DBH’s figure as to long COVID cases lowering by 50% since Delta wave. If public health experts are basing their decisions on research, they should be able to reveal their sources.

One of biggest pieces of missing info is RACE BASED DATA. BC did not think it important enough to track. Reporters had to track it down and affirm that YES, COVID has a race-based impact.

SH:

The US is doing a lot better. One of the reasons we got FOI rights was because we had to catch up to US. We got FOI rights mainly because Canadians had to go to US to find meat inspection reports on Canadian meat. Now PR officers control government information. We used to be able to talk to government officials directly. Now we have to rely on government propaganda.

Has the damage to scientific transparency in Canada been repaired since Harper’s muzzling of scientists?

SH:

From the 90s to the early 00s, Canadian public sector communications officers went from being intermediaries between reporters and public servants, to being primary spokespeople on behalf of the experts in government. That trend has accelerated. As a journalist, SH can phone a civil servant in the US for information. That is not happening in Canada.

BB:

When she requests interviews with a civil servant, she gets prefabricated quotes in response.

SH:

The PR industry needs to take responsibility for this. This is a profession that erodes democracy. If we can only get propaganda from government, we can’t “do” democracy, and the PR industry is complicit in that.

Right from beginning of pandemic, we’ve been pounded with disinformation and politicization around infection control. Starting with GBD, funded by AEI and the Koch family. Now misinformed people are taking up arms based on false information. How do we dig our way out of that? How to repair trust in public institutions?

BB:

Transparency from government is the key. Though, with misinformation so readily available, even the correct information will hardly make people change their minds.

SH:

Realistically, over next 30 years as climate change and political destabilization accelerate, we will be looking for other forms of certainty and control, and we might look for it in community. Community does provide those things. We who believe FOI is important should be forming communities around the principles of equity & evidence-based advocacy.

It’s like the 70s all over again. We were living with threats of nukes, DDT, thalidomide, at a time when the world was waking up to the power of self-annihilation. Now we’re back in that moment writ large. The answers they came up with don’t apply, but the writing and thought processes from back then are important to look at.

BB:

People who have been advocating throughout the drug poisoning crisis have been dealing with this for longer than COVID “truth seekers” (not her words) have been dealing with it. They’ve been going right to the experts, who have been able to speak to them, but only under the condition of anonymity. We should be learning from that community.

What can a regular person do to push back against disinformation when it’s coming from the government?

BB:

We need to remain connected to and keep talking with people in our circles to give them an evidence-based perspective to compete with the disinformation that’s so easy to find. Keep speaking to loved ones but don’t be pushy. Listen to their concerns. Gently insert evidence into their thought process. Pushing back against the government is more difficult to do than persuading your own family.

SH:

Personal connections are important in a fact-resistant society. Hold our politicians accountable. There are so many topics we should be talking and thinking about, but aren’t (eg. housing equality).

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