Data on the COVID-19 : good cause, bad argument

Données sur la COVID-19 : bonne cause, mauvais argument

Données sur la COVID-19 : bonne cause, mauvais argument

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June 26, 2020 10h21

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Data on the COVID-19 : good cause, bad argument

Données sur la COVID-19 : bonne cause, mauvais argument

Données sur la COVID-19 : bonne cause, mauvais argument

Jean-François Cliche

The Sun

BLOG / I still feel the same unease when I hear people invoking bad arguments to defend a cause that is dear to me. And I have felt it often since Wednesday, when the government Legault has announced that the quebec data on the COVID-19 will be now updated only once per week, and more every day.

A lot of journalists, commentators and political actors have criticized this decision as a setback for transparency. The public will be less well-informed with data updated weekly, rather than daily, they say.

Now, I find it beautiful, in general, belong to the camp of the “more info” and “transparency”, this time, I find it hard to agree. It is not true that the public information will lose much with the data updates once per week. The main function — if not the only — of these numbers is to show trends. Is it that the epidemic is gaining ground or losing ? Is it that the number of new cases is increasing or decreasing ? Is this that new admissions are on the rise, and if yes is it that we are approaching the limits of the health system ? Is it that the curve of deaths, takes the same tack (with a certain delay), as one should expect ?

It is to this that serve these data. But these tendencies, like all other trends, moreover, may not be established on the basis of a single day of data, or even two or three. See more :

Données sur la COVID-19 : bonne cause, mauvais argument

INSPQ

This chart of public Health shows the daily number of new cases confirmed in Quebec. As pointed out by the arrow on the left, from 15 to 18 April, the number of new cases has increased from 1110 to 663. Is it that that meant that the epidemic was being controlled ? Not since the weeks that followed showed that we were just start crossing a long plateau.

Conversely, of the 26 April to 1 may (middle arrow), the daily number of new cases has increased sharply, from 614 to 1060. Was this the sign of a new wave ? We now know that it is not : we were always on the same tray.

From 6 to 10 may, we went from 1038 new cases only 653 (right arrow). Were we finally arrived at the “descent” as expected ? Once again, not really, since thereafter the curve continued for nearly two weeks, between 600 and 800, which was not so much less that long sequences of April where, apart from occasional highs above 1000, the case daily ranged generally between 700 and 950.

In short, there is always a “background noise” in the data, a packet of fluctuations more or less random in the very short term, which makes it impossible to take much of the evolution of a curve in the day-to-day. And those of the INSPQ are no exception, especially as the data of the last days are not usually complete — they are only a few days, or even more. So no, this is not a big loss, and probably not even a loss for short, for information to the public if it now refreshes about once a week. It’s just not in this way that we must read these figures.

I submitted this reflection on three researchers in epidemiology/virology (Jean Barbeau of the université de montréal, Benoît Barbeau, of the UQAM, and Dr. Guy Boivin, of the UL), and all are in agreement. “To-day fluctuations that are not representative of a general trend which can be falsely interpreted by the whole of the population and some journalists, wrote to me the Benoit Barbeau. (…) I believe that the daily data themselves are used much more to epidemiologists and the general population in quebec and this decision of the government reflects in my view a logical decision and not a lack of transparency on their part.”

“You’re right that the important thing is the trend,” added Dr. Boivin, adding however that”it would be nice though to have access to the data on a daily basis (…) to know if there is an outbreak in a shelter or a place of work” — which is essentially the same point as that of Mr. Barbeau epidemiologists.

Of course, as pointed out by several of my colleagues in the media, Quebec is now the only place on the continent, if not the West, not to publish statistics every day. But this is a false argument : it is not because that other governments put their figures on a daily basis, that their day fluctuations are more informative. They are clearly not.

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No, the only thing that can be “read” in the fact that Quebec is now alone in this regard, it is a (another) sign that there is a certain culture of opacity in our government, as highlighted in this morning Patrick Lagacé, of The Press — even if it does not agree with me on the aspect of “loss of information” of the weekly update. In 2016, the Commission of access to information noted in a report many “holes”, exceptions and other restrictions, which has riddled the Act respecting access to documents held by public bodies since its adoption in 1982, and demanded a reform. And it is true that several articles of the “Law of access”, his pet name, are often interpreted by the departments so as to block information instead of the broadcast.

This is not a coincidence if, according to the Centre for Law and Democracy, Quebec ranks in the 11th position out of 14 in Canada (including the federal government and the territories). On the scale of transparency used by this organization, the Quebec city gets 81 points, far behind the “podium” (between 94 and 117 points for the first three) and only two small points before the last position (79 points).

All parties promise more transparency, but this is more of the ritual than the actual intent, since there is little to nothing being done in this regard. At least, nothing that goes in the direction of transparency really increased. In 2018, the government Couillard has introduced bill 164, which was officially to expand access to information, but which was in reality the reverse — as denounced in particular the Protector of the citizen. It was adopted without debate, with the support of the PQ and the CAQ. And now that this last is in power, it does not show more appetite than the others for a true reform.

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There is a real problem of transparency in Québec, both at the provincial level and in cities. A kind of culture of opacity that makes the reflex first is always to reveal the least possible, and that is all the more difficult to shake as it runs through the entire government hierarchy.

You can see the weekly updated data on the COVID-19 — and the fact that Quebec is the only one to do it that way — as the expression of this culture of opacity. But it is only a symptom, not the evil itself. And it is, frankly, one of the symptoms are more mild which could be imagined as the public information do not lose essentially nothing.

In short, the cause of transparency is good. But this argument-there, not so much.

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