How Canada’s Critical Data Gaps Hinder the Response to the Coronavirus Pandemic

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On April 21, 2020, health care workers conduct tests at a COVID-19 assessment center while driving Etobicoke General Hospital in Toronto. Due to huge data gaps, the number of deaths from coronaviruses is probably underestimated.

Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press

Researchers, politicians and scientists say gaps in key economic and health data are hampering Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving Canadians unaware of those infected or struggling with a devastated economy.

These blind spots could soften the federal economic rescue effort, mask inequalities in death from illness and slow our exit from self-isolation in the months to come. Experts urge provincial and federal leaders to immediately open more data streams, as this could save lives and livelihoods.

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

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Many experts say that Canadians are now just as vulnerable.

It is not known how many health care workers in British Columbia have contracted the virus or how many home workers in Ontario. The number of intensive care beds available per hospital in Quebec is not known to the public. Neither the age of those tested for the virus or the specific location of hot spots.

Nationally, the ethnicity of those infected or deceased is unknown. Due to data gaps, the death toll is probably underestimated.

Economically, Canadians do not know how many people in each province apply for EI each week (as the United States does by state). They do not have up-to-date figures on bankruptcies, delinquent mortgages, the situation of workers in the concert economy, the extent of layoffs or the extent to which the federal government’s plan for an improved wage subsidy program prompted rehiring. .

Arjumand Siddiqi, division chief of epidemiology at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, said that she and her colleagues were eager to help analyze the rapidly evolving crisis to a greater extent , but were hampered by a lack of detailed demographic and location figures for confirmed cases, among others.

“We have the will, we have the expertise, but we don’t have the data,” she said. “It would be nice to know what’s really going on. “

A patient was brought to the emergency department of the Verdun hospital in Montreal on April 23, 2020. One of the most pressing gaps, according to Dr. Arjumand Siddiqi, is the information on the ethnic origin of those who were tested positive for COVID-19 or who died from the disease.

Ryan Remiorz / The Canadian Press

One of the most pressing gaps, said Dr. Siddiqi, is the ethnicity of those who tested positive for COVID-19 or died from the disease. No Canadian province makes this data available, consistent with a long-standing national dislike for the publication of racial health disparity statistics. (Toronto medical officer of health Eileen de Villa announced that the city is exploring ways to collect racial coronavirus data on its own.)

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But there are reasons to suspect that race may be a factor in determining who gets infected and who dies from the virus, said Dr. Siddiqi, both due to the prevalence of various underlying health conditions in some racialized communities and their over-representation in low-paid jobs such as nursing, delivery and retail, which makes them very prone to exposure to the virus. Early US data indicates that black Americans are admitted to hospital and die from COVID-19 at a disproportionate rate.

“We are very clear that we want to know who is at risk,” said Dr. Siddiqi. “But we’re just very hesitant – and to say the least – to add race to the set of dividing factors we are ready to accept. “

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

“It seems bloody that you want to follow this and develop a policy based on this information,” he said in an interview. “I think there is a naive arrogance in the principle of saying:” We are not the United States, we do not have their problems, we do not discriminate like that. “”

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Even government-funded groups such as the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) have started to request race-based data for coronavirus cases. The organization now supports the idea that healthcare providers ask a common question about the race of COVID-19 patients and says it would be ready to compile the data.

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

Other highlights of who contracts COVID-19 remain unknown in most of Canada, including the location of the case clusters. In its daily report on the pandemic, the Government of Ontario is providing a heat map of cases broken down by the province’s 34 public health units so that people can see that Toronto is the regional epicenter of the pandemic. But New York provides a much more detailed map showing the percentage of positive tests in each of the dozens of city zip codes, revealing strong geographic divisions within the same metropolitan area.

Data frequency comparison, United States

unemployment claims against Canada

Employment Insurance benefit claims

In thousands, seasonally adjusted,

data available as of April 23

American unemployment

insurance claims

Canada

employment

Insurance

complaints

* The federal government has recently started to publish aggregate data on CERB applications – but this data was not available during the first month of the economic closure, and it is not broken down by province.

Age and gender data gap

COVID-19 confirmed cases

Percentage of cases, by province, data as of April 22

JEREMY AGIUS, DANIELLE WEBB AND

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND THE MAIL,

SOURCE: PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENTS;

DEPARTMENT OF LABOR OF THE UNITED STATES;

STATISTICS CANADA

Data frequency comparison, United States

unemployment claims against Canada

Employment Insurance benefit claims

In thousands, seasonally adjusted,

data available as of April 23

American unemployment

insurance claims

Canada

employment

Insurance

complaints

* The federal government has recently started to publish aggregate data on CERB applications – but this data was not available during the first month of the economic closure, and it is not broken down by province.

Age and gender data gap

COVID-19 confirmed cases

Percentage of cases, by province, data as of April 22

JEREMY AGIUS, DANIELLE WEBB AND

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND THE MAIL,

SOURCE: PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENTS;

DEPARTMENT OF LABOR OF THE UNITED STATES;

STATISTICS CANADA

Data frequency comparison, unemployment claims in the United States and

Canada Employment Insurance claims

In thousands, seasonally adjusted, data available as of April 23

American unemployment

insurance claims

Canada

employment

Insurance

complaints

* The federal government has recently started to publish aggregate data on CERB applications – but this data was not available during the first month of the economic closure, and it is not broken down by province.

Age and gender data gap in confirmed COVID-19 cases

Percentage of cases, by province, data as of April 22

JEREMY AGIUS, DANIELLE WEBB AND MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL,

SOURCE: PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENTS; DEPARTMENT OF LABOR OF THE UNITED STATES;

STATISTICS CANADA

(In Ontario, the government provided data on the first half of postal codes to a small group of researchers, including Laura Rosella from the University of Toronto. This showed that poor neighborhoods in Toronto were affected by disproportionately by the virus. She was able to publish her analysis last week, but not the raw data behind it.)

The ages of those tested are also not being released in most countries, noted Isha Berry and Jean-Paul Soucy, doctoral students at the University of Toronto, who produced a national comparison of coronavirus data. A better understanding of the age tests would give us a more precise idea of ​​who is counted among the confirmed cases in Canada. But Mr. Soucy calls the subject a “black hole” in Canada. Estonia is one of the countries that publishes such data, he said.

Even our death toll is probably biased due to data gaps. To reflect the likelihood of many patients dying at home, some countries have examined the total number of excessive deaths during the pandemic to estimate the true picture of the disease. In Britain, researchers using this method estimate that deaths from COVID-19 were about twice as high as the official number, which includes only people who died in hospital after being tested positive for the virus . In Canada, we will probably not be able to do this kind of estimate until 2021. The usual time to release national mortality data from Statistics Canada is 11 months after the end of a year. Statscan says they are working with provinces and coroners to provide more up-to-date death statistics.

Some provinces have done better than others. Alberta is widely regarded as a national leader in providing COVID-19 data. The province periodically publishes test data by age to academics or journalists who request it, and has published detailed maps of Calgary virus hotspots.

“From the start, Alberta has really done a great job of transparency in COVID case data,” said Ilan Schwartz, assistant professor of medicine in the infectious diseases division at the University of Alberta.

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The wind catches the protective gown of a first responder as she prepares to transport a patient to the emergency department of Verdun Hospital, April 23, 2020 in Montreal. The ages of those tested are also not made public in most countries, noted doctoral students at the University of Toronto.

Ryan Remiorz / The Canadian Press

Other provinces are becoming less transparent. Some health authorities in the greater Montreal area, for example, have recently stopped publishing death statistics for each long-term care home – places where the pandemic has taken a toll.

Besides the provincial differences, it is also difficult to compare the figures between the provinces. About a third of the COVID-19 cases reported in the country indicate whether the patient was hospitalized, according to the federal government’s daily epidemiological update. This leads us to wonder how well the health system will withstand as cases increase.

Statistics Canada is trying to fill some gaps along the way, allowing researchers to remotely access data stores usually kept in bunkers known as research data centers, for example.

But Michael Wolfson, a former deputy chief statistician at Statscan, says that a lack of comparable national data could slow our ability to pass strict rules of physical distancing and restart the economy safely.

“It is currently impossible to compare health data, including test results, between provinces in real time,” he said.

If Canada had a national database with detailed information on each patient with COVID-19 and all those who had been tested, says Wolfson, Canadians could more easily see trends in how different types of people and communities are doing well.

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“For example, if Moose Jaw started by opening restaurants while another community opened clothing stores instead, we could see more quickly how these different approaches have affected the spread of the disease,” he said. -he declares. “There are many truly talented epidemiologists in Canada, but they are excluded because they cannot access this type of data.”

Researchers and economists also say it will be harder to get Canadians back to work and lessen the pain of layoffs.

Signs indicating available space are posted on the Queen Street storefronts in Toronto on April 16, 2020. Another issue without a clear source of data at this time is the number of businesses that have closed permanently or temporarily in Canada .

Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press

The country lacks key details about workers in the concert economy, for example – a long-standing gap, but crucial now as so many workers appear to have lost their jobs, said Deloitte chief economist Canada, Craig Alexander. “It would be really helpful to have the information to find out what’s going on with this segment,” he said. “It could shape your programs and policies on the other side of this crisis.”

Another issue without a clear data source at the moment is the number of companies that have closed permanently or temporarily, said Frances Donald, chief economist at Manulife Investment Management. “Visibility is limited on this subject,” she said. It is also unclear how long companies can remain closed before their final closure and to what extent rehiring is currently in progress. All of this would help economists assess a potential recovery – and help companies plan a reopening.

In the absence of good government data, some economists are turning to unconventional sources of information such as social media sentiment, traffic patterns and, until the foreclosure begins, Open Table restaurant reservations, which offer a more current, albeit incomplete, picture.

As with health data, the chronic problems of government opacity were made worse during the pandemic by the situation on the ground, which is changing faster than our ability to keep up.

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“The vast majority of our economic data has been almost unusable in forecasting the next economic recession – so much so that most major central banks, including the Federal Reserve and the Bank of Canada, have raised their hands and said,” We We can’t predict what’s going to happen next, so we won’t even publish a forecast, “said Ms. Donald. ” It’s extraordinary. They are the most powerful economic departments in the world. “

Meanwhile, many economists have praised Statscan’s efforts to produce more timely information during the crisis. The agency has long opted for precision rather than punctuality. But “the current environment has pushed Statistics Canada outside of its comfort zone,” said Mr. Alexander. “I am really impressed that they are ready to speed up some of their outings. “

The Employment Insurance section of the Government of Canada website is posted on a laptop computer in Toronto on April 4, 2020. Weekly Employment Insurance claims were not published in the first month of closure .

Jesse Johnston / The Canadian Press

But understanding and goodwill only go if the fate of the economy is at stake. In some cases, such as weekly EI claims, which were not published in the first month of the closure, when key decisions were made, the federal government produced data occasionally – but not as often or with the level of detail of economists. or companies need.

“The numbers are there, we see them being announced, dribsy drabsy,” said Kevin Milligan, professor of economics at the University of British Columbia. “Why can’t they publish it regularly?” … These are not academics, sitting around wanting them to have data to analyze. It’s big business and small business, who make billion dollar decisions on where they think the economy is going. the next few weeks and they’re trying to do it without even basic labor market data. “

A large retail company, for example, needs to plan based on how much consumers will spend in the next six months to formulate a restart plan and determine how much and when to rehire, said Professor Milligan. They need to know “how much income will be affected – how many people are employed and how many are not.”

Certain numbers, such as the number of applications for the new Canadian emergency response benefit, can only be released by the federal government. (And economists would like more details, such as provincial breakdowns, on these numbers.) In other cases, dozens of administrative data exist – but it is locked up by regulators, provinces, or financial institutions, said Don Drummond, adjunct professor at Queen’s University. School of Political Studies and former senior official of the Federal Department of Finance. He would like to see more up-to-date or more accessible data on credit card spending, outstanding mortgages, electricity demand and bankruptcy filings.

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Too often, he said, various levels of government keep data silos under their control and do not share them with national institutions such as Statscan that respond nominally to the public. Old habits die hard, even in the midst of a pandemic, when data is more important than ever.

“I can tell you, after doing this kind of thing for about 40 years, that there is a recipe for disaster,” said Drummond.

TheWith reports from Tu Thanh Ha, Karen Howlett, Stephanie Chambers, Justine Hunter and Marieke Walsh


On Thursday, the death toll in COVID-19 in Canada exceeded 2,000. Here’s how the death toll compares across the provinces.

Mortality rates associated with COVID-19 in Canada,

by province

Seven-day moving average of the number of

deaths per 100,000 population, as of April 22

THE GLOBE AND THE MAIL, SOURCE:

PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENTS

Mortality rates associated with COVID-19 in Canada,

by province

Seven-day moving average of the number of

deaths per 100,000 population, as of April 22

THE GLOBE AND THE MAIL, SOURCE: PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENTS

COVID-19 Mortality Rates in Canada, by Province

Seven-day moving average of the number of deaths per 100,000 population, as of April 22

THE GLOBE AND THE MAIL, SOURCE: PROVINCIAL GOVERNMENTS

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