I was to go on a cruise last week with my family. Cancelling the cruise is trivial and perhaps offensive relative to the death, financial worry, and mental health issues people are suffering during this difficult time. A colossal pandemic such as this is bringing to light the real cracks in capitalism, where we're being confronted by the reality of where each person sits socio-economically.
Friends are losing jobs, the divorce, suicide, and domestic violence rates are said to increase, and businesses are taking precautions to do - and to be seen to be doing - the right thing.
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As people are increasingly self-isolating (on a side note, shouldn't we be self-quarantining, or isolating ourselves?), fear and speculation around who's got the virus is rising.
Ministry of Health officials have confirmed 66 COVID-19 cases as of today.
It has detailed where those with the virus are located, their age range, and what flights they've been on if travelling or in contact with people from overseas. The Ministry has gone so far as to list the flight numbers.
The media has been more explicit. There's been the student at Dunedin's Logan Park High School; the man in his 60s who attended an 8:30am mass on March 8 at St Mary's Church on East Street in Papakura; a woman recovering in a campervan at Queenstown Council's camping hub in Frankton; and a NZ Steel worker who attended a Tool concert at Spark Arena on February 28.
In this digital climate I suspect it would take me about four clicks via social media to determine who these individuals are. It's no surprise, therefore, that 69-year-old Andre Reynaud who went to Wellington cafe Milkcrate, and a patient and parent of children attending Westlake Boys' and Westlake Girls' High Schools both reported being subjected to sustained and abusive bullying via social media.
Reynaud released a statement: "The simple truth of our situation is that if Andre had not voluntarily reported for testing, we would never had known he even had the virus. Him taking extra care has reduced the risk of community transmission despite the unwanted attention and abuse it has brought us and our staff."
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Arguments against releasing details
On that note, Otago University public health expert Louise Delaney said the most important imperative in situations like the present is encouraging people with possible symptoms to come forward as soon as possible for testing and confirmation.
"As New Zealanders we are quite proud of the fact we have historically managed quite well with diseases with stigmatising potential. HIV for example, there was incredible fear, and deservedly so. While this condition is not as stigmatising, the same principle applies
[around confidentiality and promoting people to come forward]."
So where do you draw the line? It comes down to whether sharing health information should take precedence over an individual's right to privacy. Under domestic and international law, it seems society doesn't consider that a person has an absolute right to control personal information. Health information amid a pandemic is governed by the Privacy Act, and the Health Act.
The Ministry is governed by the Health Information Privacy Code - which is more or less a codified form of the Privacy Act. Health agencies can only disclose health information in limited circumstances. One example is where the disclosure of the information is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious threat to public health or public safety, or the life or health of the individual concerned or another individual.
Delaney said it means that, "specific individuals will need to know and will be contacted accordingly, but this does not mean the general public should be told in any way.
"Health practitioners will be aware of their obligations to ensure both their duty of confidentiality and the privacy of confirmed cases. They will know also that there is a significant threshold before any breach of privacy could be considered."
What about the Privacy Act?
Meanwhile, the Privacy Act outlines the limits agencies have with holding information, unless it believes on reasonable grounds that the disclosure of the information is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious threat to public health, for example.
The Privacy Act provides certain protections in theory, but then there's section 7's overriding provision. It says: "If there is another piece of law which says that personal information must, shall or must not be used in a certain way, this will override the general provisions of the Privacy Act." It means the Health Act, in this case, takes precedence.
Interestingly the Privacy Act does not apply to news media coverage. Instead that's an issue for the New Zealand Media Council in cases of newspaper reporting, or the Broadcasting Standards Authority for radio and television-related complaints.
Should more be done to protect the identities of people suffering from COVID-19? According to a Ministry of Health spokesperson, it balances putting information in the public domain where that is necessary to protect public health as well as protecting the privacy of those involved.
"It's important for media to respect the privacy of individuals in reporting. We acknowledge that there is a high level of concern about COVID-19.
"It is unacceptable for anyone to attack through social media people who have been caught up in this global outbreak."
I think Medical Officer of Health Dr Jim Miller put it best: "You have to consider whether something is in the public's interest or simply of interest to the public".