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Toronto Health Warning Unfair

Andrew C. Thomas

The headlines across the country this past week all focused on Toronto. My fair home city is under siege after the World Health Organization declared that travel there is unsafe because of a concentration of SARS infections. And Toronto isn’t defending itself very well -- from the siege, not the illness.

A city of two and a half million, Toronto is home to the majority of SARS cases in Canada. But compared to Hong Kong, Beijing and other widespread infected areas, Toronto is hardly a SARS playground. The warning is expected to cripple the economy of the city, despite the fact that the epidemic is being well tracked, at least to the knowledge of Ontario health officials.

It’s not like Toronto has much in the way of defence, especially when criticism from within has been strong. The province of Ontario has seen other health crises in past years, even without taking into account a cash-strapped healthcare system. Most devastating was an E. coli breakout in the community of Walkerton, which killed several after a collapse in the water treatment procedures of the area.

Toronto is suffering a leadership crisis, which isn’t helping either. Mayor Mel Lastman, a former furniture magnate and longtime mayor of the municipality of North York (now absorbed into Toronto itself), has a history of bad public relations. An off-the-cuff remark comparing Africans to cannibals was thought to have singlehandedly lost Toronto’s bid for the 2008 Olympics. Mel’s appeal to the world after the WHO proclamation was similarly awkward; he was surprisingly poorly informed about the exact goings-on because of a medical absence from his office. Mel’s tendency to act on emotion, thought to be the source of his power as mayor, has only hurt the city under these circumstances.

Major League Baseball has also taken issue, though they didn’t overreact in the same way. League officials offered more restraint than the overblown WHO warning, simply offering caution, like avoiding crowds and using their own pen to sign autographs. It was a common sense, perfectly legitimate proposal -- though Anaheim Angels’ pitcher Kevin Appier went so far as to suggest that upcoming Toronto home games should be played on the road, and the favour returned later in the season at the pass of the outbreak.

But according to all evidence accumulated so far, the Toronto outbreak is not a public one. One hospital in particular, Scarborough Grace, in the largely Chinese suburb of Agincourt, is being attributed as the starting point for many of the cases in the area. The city itself, however, is no more dangerous to a resident or a citizen than it would be during flu season, even with the paranoid scene of arriving travellers wearing surgical masks as they arrive at Pearson Airport and as they walk through the downtown core.

The economy is already hurting from the fallout of the WHO declaration, as weddings, sporting events and other large gatherings are all being cancelled. Harvard recently jumped on the bandwagon and restricted subsidized travel to SARS infected areas, including Toronto. The Blue Jays have complained about a drop in ticket sales, at a time when the struggling franchise is already suffering from record-low attendance.

Want to get infected? Go to Beijing or Hong Kong, where mismanagement and a policy of secrecy have caused the reckless spread of the disease. Toronto has not nearly reached the conditions to warrant what amounts to a blacklisting. Appeals to the WHO for a review of the warning are being politely ignored, to the ire of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen alike. And when common sense gives way to paranoia at a world scale, our global community definitely suffers.