So, WHO Overreacted?


SARS is taking up the headlines these days, for obvious reasons. Canada has attracted some pretty negative attention, today featuring prominently on BBC World News Service and PBS' Newshour for the first time that I can recall. At least the BBC paid us a compliment, saying how this epidemic showed how SARS could stymie the authorities "even in a city as well run as Toronto". Thanks for the kind words, BBC.

To reiterate what I said before, there are good reasons to be concerned about SARS. This disease spreads like the common cold, and may even be a mutation of a common cold virus. The disease is as virulent as influenza, and the very young, the elderly, and people with damaged immune systems are more likely to die from it. The virus itself still hasn't been fully identified, and while tests and anti-viral medications are on their way, it will be a couple of weeks to a month before medical science catches up. Right now, keeping SARS patients under quarentine is the most effective weapon we have.

So, good reasons to be concerned. Not good reasons to be off our rockers in collective panic, however; doing more damage to ourselves than the disease.

SARS has killed over 200 patients worldwide. In Canada, we have over 300 probable cases and 16 deaths. Influenza, by comparison, kills over 20,000 people in the United States each year. Th SARS epidemic doesn't even come close to matching the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1919, which killed millions, and forced the cancellation of the Stanley Cup finals. That sounds facetious, but it's true: SARS is not the black plague. In Canada, the disease has been contained within the health care system. We had a scare on Good Friday when we heard of a case that may not have traced back to the "index case" in Scarborough Grace Hospital, but that has since been shown to be not a SARS case. The number of new quarentines have dropped and, if we're lucky, the number of new cases may drop within the next few days.

But SARS has done considerable damage, economically moreso than medically. A lot of this has been self-inflicted, through our own irrational fear, and some of this has come from outside the country. Warren Kinsella, who is not only a Liberal backroom pitbull but does excellent work keeping tabs on Canada's hate groups, noticed fewer people were sitting next to people of Asian descent on the subway earlier this month. More disturbingly, he also charted the rise of hate websites blaming the SARS epidemic on "undesirable immigrants" being let into the country. The Chinese community itself has been racked by fear: pedestrian traffic has dropped over all of Toronto's Chinatowns, and businesses and restaurants are reeling.

This is not been helped by the flagrant overreaction of the World Health Organization in imposing a travel warning for all people coming to Toronto equal to the warning imposed on Hong Kong and Beijing. Unlike Hong Kong, and unlike parts of China, the SARS virus has not escaped into the community in Toronto. There is no reason to avoid taking public transit, there is no reason not to visit the city and eat in a Chinese restaurant; we have nothing to fear but fear itself!

And, and now we've seen that fear can do quantifiable damage. As Sheila Copps and others have said, the economic impact of SARS has been akin to a natural disaster. Not just our Chinatowns, but our normally overflowing hotels are booked at 17% of capacity. People are staying away from the city in droves. The impact is akin to a Montreal Ice Storm hitting Toronto (instead of just the Storm of '99). But we haven't been hit by a tornado or a flood: we've been hit with irrational fear. The damage done by this virus medically has paled in comparison to the economic damage done by others.

Thanks World Health Organization.

But while the overzealous media and the World Health Organization have part of the blame, we the community share some of that blame through our own irrational fear. Before the tourists stopped coming, we stopped eating and shopping. If Toronto wants to regain the confidence of the world, it has to show that confidence in itself.

While I would recommend that medical personnel stay away from Toronto for the next month or so, I think that I will be paying a visit to my home town soon (possibly a week from Saturday), and eating some Chinese food, and taking public transit, and not being afraid to meet people on the street and in the shops. I fully expect to leave the city healthy. If more people could just assess the real risks rationally for a minute, and do the same thing, then perhaps Toronto's economy will leave the SARS epidemic on the road to recovery.

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