Privacy advocacy doesn’t stop with coronavirus patients

2 Mar 2020

Image: © Viesturs/

Knowing the name of a patient, school or flight number won’t change the fact that you need to wash your hands, writes Elaine Burke.

Which would contribute more to public health: naming and shaming victims of coronavirus or washing your hands properly? I can’t say I’ve conducted an exhaustive scientific study, but I am confident it’s the latter.

We now have our first confirmed diagnosis of coronavirus in the Republic of Ireland. A secondary-school student presented himself for testing under the belief he had contracted coronavirus via a trip to one of northern Italy’s infected areas. The student’s school will close for two weeks and further measures will be taken to ensure those in close contact with Ireland’s first confirmed coronavirus patient since his return to these shores are fully informed of the next precautionary steps.

Future Human

There is no further detail needed than the above. Yes, there are further details available, but what benefit is there to someone so far disconnected from these events that they haven’t been approached already by the health authorities to know more?

The spread of that information can stigmatise an individual, a school or a whole community. We’ve already seen the World Health Organisation go to great pains to give Covid-19 a name that implicates no animal, no location or no specific group of people. Because though we’d like to believe better of ourselves, names stick and they created attitudes that are hard to remove from public consciousness. They provide the name, we provide the shame.

The name of a patient, school or flight number is not going to change the current advice to all persons on this island.

You still need to wash and sterilise your hands properly. You still need to avoid touching your face (or others) unnecessarily. You still need to disinfect surfaces regularly. You still need to cough and sneeze into the crook of your arm if possible, or take other measures to cover your nose and mouth when that tickle strikes. You still need to self-isolate and contact – not visit – a doctor if you believe you are experiencing symptoms of coronavirus (namely, a dry cough, increased temperature and shortness of breath) or believe you have had risky contact with infected persons. Naming names will add nothing to this nationwide prescription.

‘We owe it to vulnerable people to put a great effort into protection and prevention’

If we hear of the next coronavirus case going undisclosed until it’s too far gone, we would do well to recollect on the pitchfork-waving reaction to this first. The rapidity with which the digital torches were lit yesterday is clearly reason enough for official bodies not to encourage such mob mentality by naming and thus allowing others to, unfairly, conduct the shaming.

Imagine feeling at first ill and then worried it could be coronavirus and then, in that vulnerable position, afraid that coming forward will mean public exposure and scrutiny. People who find themselves in the unfortunate circumstance of becoming coronavirus patients should be able to expect privacy, and to trust their public health practitioners to facilitate that.

Shockingly, though, there are people who I know to be ardent advocates of privacy calling for this patient information to be disclosed. They have their arguments but I can’t find one that explains how receiving this information from an official body changes the widespread approach to coronavirus prevention in any way.

This is Ireland, a country where the real challenge is connecting two people with as many as six degrees. That someone will know, and knowingly, share identifying information that health authorities have decidedly not put into the public domain is irrelevant. Patients past, present and future need to be able to trust that their privacy will at the very least be respected by official bodies.

The only information that needs to be widely circulated at the moment is real, factual instructions on how to lead on prevention.

How to wash your hands properly (a good lather, as long as 20 seconds, washing as far up your arms and wrists as possible, and followed up with hand sanitiser if you can). How to avoid spreading viruses with personal contact or journeys to known infection hotpots. How to spot the symptoms and self-isolate if necessary, in confidence that you won’t be publicly vilified when you disclose any concerns.

Those calling for one school to be named might serve the public some good throwing that energy into calling for better sanitisation services in all schools. Or they might dedicate their time to ways to protect the most vulnerable from this disease. Because that is the real risk here, lest we not forget. Otherwise healthy pitchfork-wielders could survive a bout with coronavirus, but those whose health is already compromised may not.

We owe it to vulnerable people to put a great effort into protection and prevention. Let’s keep our heads on and our compassion in the right place. And if you insist on pointing fingers, at least make sure you’ve washed them first.

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Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic