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National journalism project could fill Saskatchewan coronavirus data void

Journalism initiative tracking remote cases of COVID-19
WATCH: Officials in Saskatchewan are tight-lipped about where exactly COVID-19 cases are located. But as Roberta Bell reports, a national journalism initiative is filling some of the data void.

With officials in Saskatchewan tight-lipped about where, exactly, COVID-19 cases are located, a national journalism initiative is filling some of the data void.

Project Pandemic, launched by the Institute for Investigative Journalism (IIJ) at Concordia University in mid-March, is a real-time open resource mapping voluntarily disclosed information from coast to coast.

It’s one of the few places that people can see how the novel coronavirus is impacting the northwest part of the province, which has been locked down and navigating an outbreak for about a month.

READ MORE: Saskatchewan Indigenous community ‘frustrated and angry’ as it battles coronavirus outbreak

The reporter gathering that information is IIJ fellow Jaida Beaudin-Herney, a member of the Membertou First Nation in Nova Scotia and a graduate of the First Nations University of Canada in Regina.

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“It was really important for us just because there was so many Indigenous communities surrounding that area,” said Beaudin-Herney, who has been calling the communities and following their social media accounts.

“These communities are underfunded,” she said.

“They’re dealing with food insecurity. They’re dealing with water crises and even social issues.”

READ MORE: Canada’s Indigenous leaders say more help is needed as COVID-19 outbreaks rise

While the first few cases in Saskatchewan were in its major urban centres, the virus followed an Alberta oilsands worker home to what government officials have deemed the “Far North” and rapidly spread.

Of the 104 active cases in the province on Friday, 85 were located in that region.

As part Beaudin-Herney’s research, she has spoken with numerous First Nation and Métis representatives in the area.

“If there was more information out there where locations are specifically, it would have helped lessen the blow of such high numbers in these communities,” she said.

Provincial officials keep specifics under wraps

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Saskatchewan, with about half of its 1.1 million residents living in its two biggest cities, situates COVID-19 cases using a map with six large regions.

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With such a large portion of the population living rurally, officials have been criticized for not releasing more details.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Family grieves Saskatchewan widow Alice Grove in COVID-19 related death

There are other jurisdictions that have been more forthcoming with information. In Ontario, for example, some municipal and regional health units have been doing briefings of their own.

During a press briefing this week, Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said information being made available has “improved substantially,” but protecting privacy and confidentiality remains a priority.

“Generally, we don’t disclose identifying details in any case,” he said in response to a reporter who asked for more information on where the province’s seventh COVID-19 casualty occurred.

‘Far North’ communities disclose case information

But a number of northwest communities have been forthcoming about novel coronavirus infections.

As COVID-19 has spread through La Loche and Clearwater River Dene First Nation, local leaders have made a point of regularly updating residents on the caseload as well as on information they need to protect themselves.

READ MORE: ‘We could be in a lot of trouble’: COVID-19 cases in La Loche area doubles

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Clearwater River Dene Nation, for example, posts daily updates on Facebook and does live broadcasts over community radio three times each week.

It’s this information that Beaudin-Herney has uploaded to Project Pandemic.

“Communication is the key to fighting this virus. You’ve definitely got be forthcoming and truthful,” said Clearwater River Dene Chief Teddy Clarke.

While the nation has had 30 cases, 21 are now recovered.

“We share information so that people are aware… and so that everyone takes precautions,” Clarke said.

“It gives them a sense of security. It gives them a sense of understanding.”

A response to ‘little data’

IIJ director Patti Sonntag said that when the pandemic struck, her mind went to her relatives living in northwest Saskatchewan – even though a case had yet to be recorded there.

“ ‘How am I supposed to understand how the people I love are affected?’ ” she said she wondered.

“There are a lot of people out there who wouldn’t have information in real-time available, I could see… right away.”

While one of the goals of Project Pandemic is to rectify that, another is to empower local news providers, to whom the map is being offered with no strings attached.

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“We’re hoping that through the reporting, we start to see stories that aren’t told,” Sonntag said.

As information accumulates, it could reveal “who’s being most affected and who’s in harm’s way,” she said.

A hope is that as the project unfolds, it will provide contribute to the understanding of how different vulnerable populations are impacted by and responding to the pandemic.

“It’s essential if you’re in a situation where you really have to rely on yourself and your neighbours that you know exactly what’s coming next.”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

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To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.