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Rights groups fight sharing of COVID-19 status with Ontario police forces in court

A bicycle police officer patrols Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto on Sunday, May 24, 2020. Warm weather and a reduction in COVID-19 restrictions has many looking to the outdoors for relief. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn.
A bicycle police officer patrols Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto on Sunday, May 24, 2020. Warm weather and a reduction in COVID-19 restrictions has many looking to the outdoors for relief. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn.

TORONTO — Granting police access to the personal information of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 violates their rights, civil liberties activists said on Thursday.

To stop the practice, several groups are asking the courts to put an end to the information sharing, put in place by the Ontario government in April.

They argue the measure violates privacy and equality rights, has no legal basis, and will unfairly target Black, Indigenous and other marginalized groups.

“The provision of sensitive personal health information to police unnecessarily deters Indigenous people from accessing essential services, such as timely, confidential health care,” Caitlyn Kasper, with Aboriginal Legal Services, said in a statement. “This then places the health of Indigenous people and the broader community at risk.”

Read more: Coronavirus: Civil liberties group concerned as Ontario cops get IDs of those who test positive

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The provincial government under Premier Doug Ford passed the emergency order in April to allow police and other first responders to get the names, addresses and birth dates of anyone testing positive for the novel coronavirus. The information is contained in a database available through an Internet portal.

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The groups, including the Black Legal Action Centre and Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said they wrote Solicitor General Sylvia Jones in April 22 outlining their concerns. They said they had received no response.

Ruth Goba, with the legal action centre, said the Black community has already had bad experiences with police collecting personal information unnecessarily.

“The fact that personal health information is now being needlessly shared with the police is deeply concerning to Black communities across the province,” Goba said.

The civil liberties association said health records are among the most sensitive personal information the government has. While appropriate measures to stop the spread of COVID are important, sharing health information with police is not the answer, the association said.

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“Sharing COVID test results with police is not necessary, and in fact undermines an effective public health approach to this pandemic,” the association’s Abby Deshman said.

Critics of the measure say police involvement in health matters is counter-productive. They say people are less likely to get tested or seek treatment if they fear being targeted. They say people with HIV and drug users end up being criminalized rather than helped.

There was no immediate response from the solicitor general to the application in Superior Court.

Read more: Coronavirus: Ontario extends emergency orders until July 29

However, the Progressive Conservative government has previously said police, firefighters and paramedics need access to the COVID information to protect themselves from contracting the virus while doing their jobs. The front-line responders are at great risk of being directly exposed to COVID-19, the province has said.

In one known case, a message in April warned drivers for the Toronto Transit Commission against picking up a Black, homeless woman in the city’s northwest. The message said she had tested positive for COVID.

Alexander McClelland, a criminology scholar and spokesman for an advocacy group dubbed We Can’t Police Our Way Out of a Pandemic, has previously called the measure an “unjustified, unprecedented violation of privacy rights.” McClelland said other front-line workers — cleaners and cashiers for example — are similarly at risk but can’t access such information.

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