The two territories Northern News Services covers have taken two very different approaches to public interest and privacy during the pandemic.
While the GNWT has taken the position of not identifying the home community of a person infected with the coronavirus, officials in Nunavut declared April 8 that they would.
Nunavut’s argument was about avoiding panic.
“If we announce it and just that it’s somewhere in the territory, there will be 25 communities of people who are very concerned and feeling the urge or the need to get tested or at least assessed at the health centres,” Dr. Michael Patterson, Nunavut’s chief public health officer, said, according to the CBC.
“By identifying the community where it is without any of the other specifics, we have the ability to shift staff into that community to do the work that needs to be done without overloading the other communities.”
That’s solid reasoning. But NWT chief public health officer Dr. Kami Kandola also makes a compelling argument for refraining from naming a community where a case has been confirmed.
It’s also about avoiding panic, and harm.
As the territory has seen in recent days, some communities are taking matters into their own hands, erecting barricades, announcing warnings – as occurred in Lutsel K’e where residents have been advised that snowmobiles will be seized if residents don’t respect isolation measures.
Communities are right to be concerned and it’s understandable they will want to take steps to protect themselves. But it’s also easy to see how announcing cases in small communities where most people know each other can quickly devolve into a witch hunt as community members try to surmise who among them has the illness. This may lead to stigma directed toward the infected and for some people to take drastic and harmful action as the fear and rumour mill grows. Hence, the GNWT’s decision not to name communities.
But while Kandola’s stance is hard to argue with, it is challenged by the speed at which information spreads over the internet and social media in particular.
It took less than 12 hours for the territory to learn the single NWT case coming from a small community was in Fort Resolution.
(As of April 10, there are five cases in the territory, three in Yellowknife, one in Inuvik).
Once people in the community began taking to Facebook, including Deninu Kue chief Louis Balsillie, that was it. We’re in a democracy after all, and secrets to don’t keep well in an open society such as ours.
This is the needle the chief public health officer will have to thread – aim for discretion and privacy where able but be prepared for word to get out and deal with the aftermath once it does.
So far so good. Here’s hoping it stays that way.