Coping With SARS in Toronto
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PERSON ON PHONE: I do know certainly the hospitals are being very careful to take the precautions…
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Just because the World Health Organization has lifted its travel advisory to Toronto, it does not mean the city’s troubles are over. Health professionals continue to work around the clock, as they have for the last six weeks, to contain the SARS outbreak.
PERSON ON PHONE: And have someone see him if you’re feeling concerned that it goes beyond…
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Two hundred sixty-two people in this city of five million have been diagnosed with the virus. Twenty-one people have died. Health professionals like Dr. Bonnie Henry have become detectives, tracking down suspected cases and putting more than 10,000 people in quarantine.
DR. BONNIE HENRY: It is quite a severe measure. It means people really lose their right to go out in the community. We make them stay at home, stay in isolation, not have contact with other people, and we monitor them for the incubation period. So as soon as they show any sign of this disease, we can make sure they get treatment in hospital in an isolation ward.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Henry says it’s this powerful weapon of quarantine that has prevented the disease from spreading throughout the general population. No new cases have been reported in the past 11 days, and Henry says if that continues for nine more, the city can officially claim to have eradicated the outbreak. That’s why Henry and other officials were puzzled when less than a week ago the World Health Organization warned people not to come to Toronto.
DR. BONNIE HENRY: It was very disconcerting to us when the WHO came out with a travel advisory because at the point when they did, we were very confident that we had found the right balance and had contained this and had stopped community transmission.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: So while the virus may be contained, there’s something else that has spread rapidly: A perception widely held throughout the world that Toronto is not a safe place to be. Hotels are practically empty. The restaurant business is down more than 50 percent. Major conventions have canceled. Tourism is the city’s second largest industry, employing 100,000 people. By one estimate, the city is now losing $30 million a day. Rickshaw driver Leo Casey, who hangs out near the city’s landmark C.N. Tower, has never seen anything like this.
LEO CASEY: This is a ghost town. It’s very, very quiet. If you look up those stairs, there’s nobody. And the people you see walking around here are locals. (Clanging pots and pans)
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Toronto’s Chinatown has been especially hard hit. The first victim was a Chinese Canadian woman who accidentally brought SARS into the country after contracting it in Hong Kong.
SPOKESMAN: Once hit, recovery is very difficult.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Chinese community leaders met this week with federal, provincial, and local officials to lay out the depth of their problems.
ANNA YIP, Business Leader: We need to bring people back to Toronto before there is very little for people to come back to. If immediate measures are not taken, there will not be enough time to save many of the smaller businesses that are struggling to survive.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Government officials, like transportation minister David Collenette, blame the World Health Organization for what’s happening in Chinatown and the rest of the country.
DAVID COLLENETTE: The impact of SARS has been felt not only by the Chinese Canadian community, it has affected the entire region. Many tourists and businesses have suffered. Last week’s misguided travel advisory by the World Health Organization has stabbed Toronto through the heart, but in doing so, it has wounded the entire country.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: James Chiu owns a chain of 14 Chinese buffet restaurants. He’s lost $2 million so far, but he’s says he’s determined to keep going. Since the SARS outbreak, he’s installed wider sneeze guards over the buffet tables. He screens every employee, making sure they have not traveled to or from China recently. And he’s told the public about all this with a huge radio and newspaper advertising campaign. He and his employees have also reached into their pockets.
JAMES CHIU, Restaurant Owner: We have 1,400 employees and 70 managing partners. We all chipped in. All the managing partners took out moneys and chipped in. We have already chipped in $1 million to try to sustain that business. We haven’t laid anybody off yet.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: We haven’t laid anybody off yet.
JAMES CHIU: No, no. We try not to. They need this job to survive.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But hundreds of hotel employees like Solomon Asfaha have been laid off. He had a job as a room service waiter for 17 years with a major hotel chain. He’s angry with the Canadian government for not doing more to come to the aid of people like himself.
SOLOMON ASFAHA: They should do more, because this is one of the natural disasters — same thing. If it was a flood, if it was a lot of snow, they would do something. This is no different from that.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: You don’t think this is any different from a disaster?
SOLOMON ASFAHA: It’s even worse. All these years that I worked in the hotel industry, I have never seen it this slow. For how long? We don’t know.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Yesterday, Prime Minister Jean Chretien moved his cabinet meeting to Toronto as a symbolic show of support for the city. His government has pledged millions of dollars for a marketing campaign to bring tourists back, but he said it would be difficult for the government to offer a direct aid package to affected businesses.
JEAN CHRETIEN, Prime Minister, Canada: The question of going to every business and giving them something will be a very complex problem to evaluate the direct link between SARS and economic difficulty of anybody.
MAN: It’s all about, like, saying no to this and hello to Toronto.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: In the meantime, many private companies are trying to get the word out that Toronto is a safe place to visit. Blue Jays Baseball sold tickets for one dollar to last night’s game, hoping that a packed house would show the world that Toronto is open for business. But Blue Jays CEO Paul Godfrey says the recovery won’t be quick even with today’s lifting of the WHO advisory.
PAUL GODFREY, CEO, Toronto Blue Jays: When people fan the flames of fear, that creates really, anxiety and emotional upset, not just in the city you happen to be in, but the further you go away from that, the perceptions get bigger and bigger and bigger. And the problem is that these scars don’t just go away because the World Health Organization removes its travel advisory. These scars unfortunately are going to be with us for a time to come.
COMEDIAN: Good evening, and welcome to W-Scare News, live from Toronto.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: At Canada’s famous second city theater, comedians have decided the best way to heal those scars is with laughter.
COMEDIAN: Travelers are being warned not to come to Toronto, not to talk to relatives in Toronto or even think of the word “Toronto,” just to be on the safe side.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Actress Carolyn Taylor says humor helps people get through this tough time.
CAROLYN TAYLOR, Actress: Some people aren’t necessarily as conscious about how they’re feeling about things, so it’s our job to bring it out, to allow people to laugh at things or even just think about them if they’re not even laughing.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Even if Torontonians aren’t laughing just yet, they are hopeful. The city seems to have turned a corner on the health crisis in six weeks, but the economic chaos SARS has caused is another matter. Economists say that recovery could take up to two years.
JIM LEHRER: For its part, the World Health Organization has rejected criticism from city leaders of its actions. W.H.O. Officials said yesterday the travel advisory was justified when it was first issued, and they warned they would continue to monitor the situation closely.