Two years ago today, I started tracking COVID-19 deaths in Canada related to outbreaks in residential care facilities, workplaces and other locations. Every single night, I spent 30 minutes to three hours counting the dead.
When I started, the numbers reported by journalists in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia were rising so fast that it was difficult to keep track. There were no provincial lists, certainly nothing national (there are still no official national outbreak-related death figures), and what we did have was coming from journalists lucky enough to hold onto their jobs as Canada was hit by the pandemic’s first wave.
By April 15, 2020, I had already linked 509 deaths to long-term care facilities. That same day, Canada officially surpassed 1,000 deaths due to COVID-19. Canada’s data, however, was spotty. I was tracking more information from media reports and obituaries than from official sources, and it wasn’t until late May that we started to get better reporting from some provinces, such as Quebec, where a significant number of Canada’s first wave deaths occurred.
I’ve told this story a lot — it’s almost always the first question that I’m asked when I talk about my book Spin Doctors: How Media And Politicians Misdiagnosed The COVID-19 Pandemic. The origin story of this work is interesting, but as I reflect on the thousands of hours I’ve spent gathering this data over the past two years, it’s hardly the story that stands out.
The most important story is the data itself. Its inadequacy. How opaque it has been. How in Ontario, public health units regularly report numbers that are different from the province’s tally. How in Saskatchewan, we’ve never had a stable count of outbreak-linked COVID-19 cases. How in Alberta, specific figures were only provided to some journalists, leaving us dependent on who was covering the day’s news, until months ago, when these numbers stopped appearing in the news entirely. How in B.C., it was only in January 2021 that the province started to report deaths in long-term care, once per week. How data in Quebec has consistently been the most reliable, and yet, there has been almost no comparative analyses done by journalists to extrapolate what data gaps within their province might indicate about case numbers.
The data deficit has been the underlying story of Canada’s pandemic. And I’ve had one of the few front-row seats to see how data suppression has allowed politicians and public health officials to spin narratives about COVID-19 that aren’t exactly true.
In the earlier half of the pandemic, it was more subtle. In its subtlety, and accompanied by a tsunami of daily news, I think a lot of people missed it or were willing to focus on the data that we did have. But now, as Canada is in the grips of a sixth wave, our data collection looks more like it did two years ago than it did last year. Data points have vanished off the map.
Yesterday, the Public Health Agency of Canada’s daily COVID-19 reporting tool displayed N/A in nine provinces and territories, as these places now share data just once per week. We’re now resorting to using proxy measurements to determine how much COVID-19 is in our communities: hospitalizations, ICU admissions, deaths and wastewater prevalence.
Politicians could have easily insisted that data be collected and shared. But, with Canada having a higher hospitalization per capita rate than the United States since mid-February, and the trend likely to continue and worsen, it serves our political elites to suppress information, pretend that nothing is wrong, and reassure the population in much the same way that they’ve been doing for two years. The big difference? There are far more cases of COVID-19 in our communities today compared to early in the pandemic. Our only saving grace is that our vaccination rates are so high, making us far less likely to die from COVID-19.
Journalism doesn’t have much to be proud of, either. When I started collecting this data, I knew governments would downplay and suppress numbers. It was obvious. And so, I started counting and developing ways to be able to predict things such as death spikes and how long it would take to reach another 1,000 deaths, given how prevalent spread is, for example.
Most journalists decried a lack of government data, but their employers didn’t do anything to put measures in place to collect whatever data they could. One journalist told me that he thought the work I was doing was a job for public health, not journalists. This kind of attitude is widespread. And I agree. There absolutely is a need for the government to collect this data.
But whose fault is it when your dog that keeps pissing on the carpet does so for the 750th time? Media agencies needed to be tracking their own numbers in order for us to have a record that could help challenge the public line. (Many deaths have been classified/declassified as COVID-19 without any public pushback, and many data dumps have occurred weeks or months after deaths, without much attention on whether or not they were linked to institutional settings, for example.)
Journalists have known since day one that politicians would do what they could to suppress the data. Why didn’t any national news agency establish their own public COVID-19 metrics? Why did they rely on official data, knowing full well that it was inadequate and that the tap might be turned off at any moment?
National news networks could have built databases of individuals to serve as litmus tests, and checked in with them every week to ask them questions like: How much COVID-19 is circulating among your networks? Are you more or less anxious than you were last week? Have you come into contact with a case? They could have had a better handle on proxy measurements that could then be put into formulae to better estimate how many cases were active. They could have done so many things that would have given them a connection to people and communities to be able to state, ‘Here is what our COVID-19 watchers are saying this week,’ and then use that information to challenge politicians.
These things could have happened. But they didn’t. In fact, I remain the lone journalist in Canada collecting deaths related to workplace outbreaks, and documenting the race and gender of working-age Canadians that died from COVID-19. My residential care research also continues, although rather than doing it every night, I need to juggle it into my schedule.
We’re all sick of the pandemic. But few people are as sick as I am at watching how consistent data suppression has been throughout the country, and the total lack of national-level reporting and data tracking from any Canadian media outlet.
It’s dreadfully depressing, and all of it serves to justify and defend the status quo in Canada — the same status quo that has enabled at least 38,000 deaths, including more than 20,700 deaths related to outbreaks, and will ensure that these numbers continue to rise.