Opinion

How invoking the Emergencies Act could help Canada better track, contain COVID-19

Under the Emergencies Act, government would have the power to do things like using cellphone data to track people who may have been exposed to coronavirus and get them tested.

Emergencies Act would give government power to do things like using cellphone data to track exposure

A lab processes COVID-19 tests. Cellphone data is being used in some countries to complement traditional methods of tracing people who may have been exposed in order to notify them that they should be tested. (David Blomme/NSHA)

This column is an opinion by Colleen M. Flood, Teresa Scassa and David Robertson. Flood is Director of the Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics and University Research Chair at the University of Ottawa. Scassa is Canada Research Chair in Information Law and Policy at the University of Ottawa. Robertson is a physician and teacher at St. Michael's Hospital and the University of Toronto, and a senior fellow at Massey College. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The prime minister is called upon almost daily in the media scrum outside his home at Rideau Cottage to explain why the federal government has not invoked the Emergencies Act. Canadians perceive the COVID-19 pandemic to be an emergency and rightly so.

The problem is that the Act can only be employed when an emergency rises above the ability of any one province to cope with the situation and there is, as a consequence, a risk to other provinces. The mere fact that there are different approaches to the pandemic across the country is not by itself sufficient to trigger the Act.

However, as the pandemic unfolds, it has been clear that our provinces are not able to ensure sufficient testing for COVID-19. Without this, there is no hope of notifying all those who have been exposed and, in turn, testing and – crucially – isolating them too, if positive.

Other countries, such as Taiwan and South Korea, have had success with taming COVID-19 this way. It is only through this method that we can hope to eradicate nests of infection. Otherwise, lock-down and social isolation measures will stalk us for months to come, wreaking unsustainable havoc on the economy and social and cultural life.

The World Health Organization has urged countries to "isolate, test, treat and trace." The provinces' inability to achieve high levels of testing and tracing collectively from coast to coast arguably is a sufficient ground for the federal government to trigger the Emergencies Act.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the nation Tuesday, touching on legislation to help Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic, stressing the need for social distancing and touching on his conversation with premiers about the federal Emergency Measures Act. 21:55

The powers that the federal government has under the Act include the "establishment of emergency shelters and hospitals." This would allow Canada to act swiftly to establish additional testing sites to support hospitals, deploying military and other public servants, as well as medical and nursing students, and possibly volunteers to supplement the already overtaxed health-care workforce.

The government could further establish testing sites in rural remote and northern areas.

Once a person tests positive and has been assigned appropriate care, the next step would be to trace and follow up with everyone the person has come in contact with.

Trying to do this the old-school way — calling folks up and talking to them about where, when and who — has already proven too slow for the fast-moving virus. For instance, old-school public health tracing was overwhelmed after a "super-spreader" infected thousands of people starting with a party in Westport, Ct.

In contrast, South Korea accessed people's cellphone data to track their whereabouts in the days before they tested positive. Then, tracers used the data on their phones to send messages to individuals whose phone data revealed they had been in the same spaces. The messages said: "You need to be tested, immediately, to save lives."

Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam says some provinces have come up with innovative ways to tackle the spread of COVID-19, but the best approach is still for everyone to respect social distancing. 1:10

In Canada, not everybody has a cellphone, but close to 90 per cent do, and this approach could complement traditional tracing methods. Under the Act, the federal government could use the power to require, use or dispose of "property" in order to access data held by telecommunications companies.

The next hurdle would be the federal privacy legislation, Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), which prohibits companies from disclosing personal data without consent. It would be necessary to pass a new law — temporarily and only for the purpose of fighting COVID-19 — to permit this. This law would, in turn, have to comply with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

To succeed here, the federal government would need to show strong evidence of the need to ramp up testing and contact tracing. The Chief Public Health Officer would have to consider the imperative for testing and tracing, but also consider whether the disease is so widespread that widespread contact tracing, which works well with discrete chains of infection, may not have the desired effect.

The federal government would also need to show it had implemented the strongest privacy protections it could in the circumstances, including limiting collection of data to COVID-19-related purposes, for a specific period, providing safeguards for the use and disposal of the data, and ensuring consultation and possible oversight by the Privacy Commissioner.

There are thousands of people waiting for results from a coronavirus test because the system handling them is overwhelmed. 2:14

It is better for the federal government to do this well and do it right for all Canadians rather than to permit differences across provinces, particularly as tracing those who may have been infected may involve crossing provincial boundaries.

Whatever the federal government does in this space would require significant interactions and synergies between provincial governments and local public health units across the country.

If Canada were to invoke the Emergencies Act, it would be unprecedented. If Canada were to use that power to ramp up testing and contact-tracing across Canada, it would be unprecedented. And if Canada were to require the use of data from our telecommunications companies to track the contacts of those infected with COVID-19, it would be unprecedented.

But we live in unprecedented times.


About the Author

Colleen M. Flood is Director of the Centre for Health Law, Policy and Ethics and University Research Chair at the University of Ottawa.

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