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All around the world, the COVID-19 Pandemic has drawn in an army of scientific advisers -doctors, epidemiologists, and health strategists- to help combat both its spread and effects. In this, Canada is no exception, but whereas most nations have been fully transparent with the names and credentials of the experts they have chosen, Canada has bucked the trend.

Citing privacy concerns, the Ontario government has chosen not to release the names and credentials of the experts it has consulted for its pandemic response strategies. This citing of privacy concern in the decision creates an interesting political paradox, where the government is both more considerate of its citizen’s privacy, but also opens up the chance for less accountability. Responses and predictions of the impact of this decision have been likewise mixed.

Medical Advisors Privacy

The announcement, by Toronto Premier Doug Ford, comes after opposition party members called on the premier to release the names of the experts consulted for his COVID-19 response strategy. It was during his daily medical briefing that he publicly declined to release the full list of experts, citing the aforementioned privacy concerns as his reason. The opposition initially called on such a release to ensure that those giving the advice were both appropriate for the job and not working for an undisclosed agenda.

“[There is] a lot of doctors [who] don’t want their names out their” he said, referring to the over 100 medical professionals he has consulted. Whilst many find his commitment to personal privacy admirable, it does represent a certain degree of backtrack as he initially promised his COVID strategizing would be open and transparent.

Justified privacy concern?

His announcement that “We have a host of doctors, and then those doctors talk to other doctors. … but to say every single doctor involved, I’d give you a list of over 100 doctors and for certain privacy, they don’t want their names out there.” Some have pointed that this may vindicate his opinion, as a full, publicised roster of doctors would only reveal a small pool of the total expertise helping craft policy, whilst compromising the privacy of those few doctors ‘officially involved’.

Piecemeal Political Accountability

However, despite the premiers assertations of privacy, the health minister Christine Elliot’s office did release a list of a number (though not all) of the medical professionals advising the Ontario Progressive Conservative parties’ government.

The list includes established government medical advisors such as Dr. David Williams (Ontario’s chief medical officer of health), as well as a number of medical officials from smaller jurisdiction levels. Alongside them is chief coroner Dr. Dirk Huyer, Dr. Steini Brown of the University of Toronto, as well as a number of hospital CEO’s, other private-sector medical leaders and many high-ranking civil servants in a variety of sectors.

“All of these experts play important roles as we work collectively to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak and gradually reopen the economy,” Christine Elliot’s media manager has said, helping to explain the heavy dose of private sector and the few non-medical experts on the team.

Ford went on to defend his choice of experts, claiming that many of those without medical expertise have been useful from a strategic and logistical standpoint, claiming: “About fighting COVID, it’s not just about having doctors and specialists, that’s a big part of it, but there’s an operational side…If it wasn’t Matt Anderson, I’ll tell you, the testing would be half of where it is right now.”

For context, Matt Anderson is the President and CEO of the private medical company Ontario Health; and whilst he has a long history of leadership IN the medical business sector, has never himself been a medical professional.

The Political Backlash

Following this piecemeal announcement of advisors, the NDP leader Andrea Horwath reiterated her point that Ford should release the full list of advisors, medical or otherwise. She reasoned that it was critical to know who was advising the government so their intentions and interests could be officially known and understood, given the delicate and integral nature of reopening from lockdown.

She believed that Ontarians have a right to know how (and by who) their future would be decided: “Ontarians deserve to know that the command table includes medical experts who are on the ground, working with patients and front-line health care workers, bringing first-hand knowledge back to Queen’s Park”

She followed by pointing out Ford’s earlier commitments to transparency: “At his podium Mr. Ford has said Ontarians deserve to know what he knows, but on the ground, we see an ongoing lack of transparency.”

Likewise, the green party leader Mike Schreiner has echoed the vocal call for transparency, with specific worry about what the intentions of the advisors would be. He specifically mentioned concerns that “PC insiders or bureaucrats [may have] priorities [that] lay outside of public health”. This follows a rocky ride with the COVID-19 response in the province: “Ontario has some of the brightest minds on infectious disease, and yet our response has been one of the most uneven and chaotic in the country,”

He followed, saying that as the province prepares for a second wave “Ontarians deserve to know which medical experts are helping the Premier to call the shots.” And presumably, who made the mistakes the first time around. The Liberal party leader also joined the call for transparency and a release of the medical advisor’s list: “For Ontario to feel safe as we fight COVID-19, clear and reliable information must be shared”, alongside independent legislator Randy Hillier.

Hiller pointed out that Ford has announced ‘we all should know what he knows’, which is hypocritical given the sudden opaqueness of his “COVID command table.”

The Medical Backlash

Echoing Hillers point and going further, University of Toronto infection control epidemiologist Colin Furness called for not only the names of the advisors to be released but also for the meeting minutes to be published, giving the public a chance to judge for themselves what interests are being represented at the command table.

“[It’s] not just who’s on the list” he said, “but who made this decision and who is standing behind the decision?”. Furness wanted to know if the scientists on the table were not being overshadowed by the business interests also represented, saying “Can you get a scientist to stand up at the podium and say, ‘I stand by this decision’?”

He concluded his statement with the desires that have been propagated by many public and political sources, asking for a strong compliment of epidemiologists, public health workers, social workers, and scientists to counterbalance the Healthcare CEO and business interest present.

Whether this is possible will first rely on the decision to release the full roster of advisors. Is Ford focusing on legitimate privacy concerns or is he using them to hamper proper political accountability? Without transparency, the question will hang over the entire COVID-19 response.