Respectfully, it’s time to release township COVID-19 numbers

A prescription for transparency

The Full Nelson

by Nelson Zandbergen

Some time has passed, and it would be worthwhile for Eastern Ontario Medical Officer of Health Dr. Paul Roumeliotis to take another look at releasing more detail on the location of COVID-19 cases in SD&G — just as the doctor re-evaluated the need for a mask mandate and came around to that idea.

At this point in the pandemic, it’s really not fair anymore (if it ever was) for Cornwall to stand alone as the only tax-collecting and mayor-led municipality within geographical SD&G to have its COVID-19 stats individually reported and tabulated. Each township within SD&G is just as much a municipality as the city in some very important respects. Each has a mayor and a council representing thousands of people, and each is empowered to collect taxes on their behalf — including the money that goes to the EOHU. (Sure, the  public health allocation is funnelled through the United Counties government before ending up in the EOHU’s bank account, but make no mistake, those dollars are collected first by the townships!)

And just like Cornwall, the mayor and council of each township have directly imposed policies on the public (even using their own staff and bylaw officials at times) to help implement the EOHU’s program of preventing COVID-19. The same can’t be said of the United Counties of SD&G because, as an entity, it doesn’t interface with the public’s day-to-day life to nearly the same degree as each township, especially on matters related to viral spread; even the closure of the libraries was implemented by the independent library board, not the counties, in compliance with the provincial directive. It’s the township mayors and councils that are in the realm of parks, beaches, pools, recreation, all manner of bylaw enforcement and even tax collection — not the counties. To correlate only the upper-tier jurisdiction of the United Counties of SD&G (or the United Counties of Prescott and Russell) as the equivalent of the single-tier City of Cornwall is inaccurate at best. The argument can be made — and I’m making it — that for purposes of public health in the context of this pandemic, the rubber-hits-the-road township level is more the equal of the City of Cornwall. And yet city taxpayers get to see their COVID-19 stats, while township taxpayers are still denied this information.

The doctor has previously explained his reluctance to release township-based data as not wanting to give certain areas a false sense of security, should those residents see the actual numbers in their neck of the woods. We must simply assume the virus is everywhere. That message — even if it was justified to withhold information from the taxpaying public as a kind of ‘wartime propaganda’ measure — has now been largely absorbed by the populace anyway. Most people accept the premise that one risks picking up an infection in any community of the region. Nor would anyone’s medical privacy be upended by simply breaking down the stats by township; each is still sufficiently large to prevent “blowing the cover” of an infected individual.

Keeping rural SD&G residents in the dark about case numbers in their individual townships could even hinder efforts to halt the spread of the virus and prevent a second wave here — especially as a certain weariness with COVID-19 has already set in. To hear only of new cases in a nebulous, gigantic and distant “SD&G” or “Prescott and Russell” has less potential impact on the listener than the name of one’s township or a neighbouring one. People are engaged with their townships. (And yes, I do realize a few lower-tier municipalities eschew the term ‘township’, but for clarity’s sake, I’m using it here.)

The secrecy also fosters unhealthy rumour and conjecture and risks promoting a feeling the authorities have something to hide.

In both French and English, the talented Dr. Roumeliotis — a Harvard graduate — has done yeoman’s work keeping the public informed about all local matters related to the pandemic during a very trying time for not only Eastern Ontario but the world. The Medical Officer of Health has also demonstrated a willingness to pragmatically change his mind as he did about masks and, earlier, by agreeing to release Cornwall’s case numbers. Respectfully, it is time for township taxpayers to get equal treatment. Supplying this information won’t hurt and can only help in the battle against COVID-19 at this stage. It’s the right prescription.

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