Posted: May 30, 2003
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Article SummaryThis is an almost shockingly lighthearted piece on Toronto’s SARS epidemic. It starts out with a weird focus on the question of whether SARS is God’s punishment, but winds up making some fairly solid points.

What next? Insanity?

The Toronto Star, May 30, 2003

Include anxiety among ailments afflicting T.O. But we’ll party through any old plague that hits.

This is a test. Repeat. This is only a test.

It is not the end of the world.

Look around. Do you see any brimstone? (Not that most of us would recognize brimstone if we saw it. It’s not something you can pick up by the bag at your local garden centre.)

But it is true that Toronto, alone among cities in the universe, has achieved the trifecta of pestilence: SARS, mad cow disease, West Nile virus.

And so it’s not surprising that some of us are wondering this spring not only what to plant in the hanging baskets or which cellphone plan is best but also whether the world, our world anyhow, is coming to an end.

“There’s no question that people are anxious,” says Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, senior rabbi of Toronto’s Beth Tzedec congregation. “We’ve had a number of families in our congregation who have been directly affected by SARS, people worry about their kids and summer camp related to West Nile, and the sign in the kosher butcher shop says, ‘We use only Ontario-based beef products.’”

If Toronto is not yet a latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah, biblical cities destroyed by brimstone, are we not at least approaching the trials of Job, who was subjected to a series of calamities as a test of faith?

At the rate things are going, we’ll soon have unbearable heat and humidity (to balance the interminable frigid winter), and pollution and smog, as well as lay-offs, closings and bankruptcies.

And let’s not forget the burden of a hospital system that’s pretty much broken and useless.

Altogether that adds up to the same number of afflictions visited upon the Egyptians in biblical times, persuading them to set free their Israelite slaves.

Maybe we’re being informed that we have to give up something, too – besides a Tory government.

Maybe there’s a reason we’re being tested, why we’ve gone from Toronto the Good to Toronto the Greedy to Toronto the Needy.

But don’t blame God, says radio talk show host Father John Walsh, who is the priest at St. Jean de Brebeuf Parish in Montreal, even though what’s currently happening in Toronto could be construed as “a strong wake-up call.”

Rabbi Frydman-Kohl agrees. “I don’t believe there’s a theological reason for this, but I would say that these all have not only natural causes but causes that to some extent we helped create … we helped to bring this on.”

Father John, being a man of the cloth, feels no smugness at being safe in Montreal instead of enduring pestilence in Toronto. (But I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that my former neighbours in Windsor and my relatives out West are experiencing schadenfreude, a secret enjoyment of Toronto’s misfortune.) His sister in Toronto was under quarantine “the first time around.”

Her daughter had gone to Scarborough Grace Hospital with an allergic reaction.

“The doctor said it was probably a reaction to pesticide on tomatoes.”

Oops, we almost forgot about the affliction of pesticides and unsafe food.

Says Father John, “I think the whole thing shows we’re living in this global village and we didn’t want to face that. We’re no longer able to protect ourselves from what’s going on in the world.”

Whereas we used to think the world was our oyster, says Father John, we’ll have to start regarding it as our pearl – “opened up to reveal that life is not lived only in Toronto but in the world.”

Rabbi Frydman-Kohl, too, sees the situation as “an opportunity for self-examination.”

He says, “It’s not, ‘My sin causes this event.’ The moral does not lead to the medical and it’s not the cause of mortality.” But, he adds, “Mortality is a goad to morality. It causes us to stop and to ask, ‘Are there things that we could do or should do?’

“Most people are focused on the short term – what we can do to protect ourselves from mosquito bites, from exposure to SARS and from mad cow. But we really have to ask ourselves a longer term question: In what ways do our social and technological developments also contribute to our problems?”

And yet, the litany of calamities befalling us does make it seem as if we are being “punished” – perhaps for ignoring the environment? Or for being so narcissistic, so Toronto-centric?

“The question, ‘Are we being punished?’ is, of course, an expression of guilt,” says Peter Sandman, former professor of human ecology and communication at Rutgers University and currently a consultant on health risk management based in Princeton, N.J.

“It’s very common in crises,” he explains. “People feel guilty about living through a crisis while others don’t survive, about not being able to protect their children and families.”

Likely we also feel guilty for having had it so good for so long – for being safe and well-fed, for living in the midst of peace and plenty with social safety nets and universal health care, for living relatively disease-free.

The feeling that these givens are no longer secure, that the centre isn’t holding and that the sky is falling surely sensitizes us to places in the world where these are not merely feelings but rather grim realities, where people live every day with rampant disease and haphazard health care.

Meanwhile, back home in Toronto, the best remedy for worrying that things are of control, says Sandman, is transparent, truthful, strong leadership that binds our anxieties and guides us through the uncertainty.

And we’re getting just the opposite, observes Sandman, who has served as a consultant to the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He and his physician wife, Jody Lanard, are closely studying the situation here.

Instead of acknowledging the concern, anxiety and low-level depression that’s hanging like a miasma over the city right now, officials and community leaders are telling us that we should be upbeat, positive – and rockin’ to the Barenaked Ladies.

Hey folks, there’s nothing to worry about. Let’s ignore the whole thing and surely it will go away.

Let’s tinker with the way we tally SARS cases and make it seem as if there are fewer than there really are. Let’s control an infectious disease by downplaying it.

Let’s pretend it’s a great time to be in Toronto. Let’s pretend the Emperor is wearing new clothes. Let’s fiddle while Rome burns.

Let’s have fun! Yeah! It’s party time!

“When officials are telling you about something alarming and at the same time tell you there’s no reason to be alarmed, that double message is very terrifying and upsetting,” says Sandman.

“Over-reassurance is one of the cardinal sins in risk communication and they’ve done it in Toronto over and over again,” he says.

“The emotional reactions people have to risks – whether fear or misery or guilt – are worthy of respect.

“As a leader, you can’t help people bear their feelings if you’re contemptuous of those feelings, if you call them, as some Canadian leaders have, mass hysteria and panic.”

He’s not impressed with the plans for gala concerts on June 21 at the Air Canada Centre and the SkyDome as a way to douse alarm and soothe anxiety.

Instead, leaders need to show they’re taking the risk (of disease) seriously, coping with it, coping with the feelings and getting on with life, says Sandman. “An event that symbolizes only the last of those is not helpful.”

The symbolism of the concert is half-wrong, he says.

“The half that says we have to live our lives and enjoy life is right. The half that says we have to pretend that our lives haven’t changed is very destructive … This is, ‘Let’s pretend we don’t have the problems we have.’”

Even if the diseases raining upon us at the moment don’t constitute an outright emergency, Sandman sees a great health risk in the state of our hospitals.

In his late 50s, he says he avoids travelling to places where the health care is substandard.

“At the moment, Toronto is such a place,” he says. “So when people say the streets of Toronto are safe and don’t say the hospitals of Toronto are a disaster area, they’re telling a half-truth that is terribly misleading.

“If you know the hospitals are unsafe and you have officials saying the streets are safe, that’s just awful.

“They just leave us alone with our fears and concerns and they brand themselves as either deceptive or self-deceptive.”

The truth?

We have nothing to fear but fear itself … and SARS, mad cow disease, West Nile virus, dangerous hospitals, pesticides on tomatoes, unsafe foods, pollution, SARS again … but so far there’s no sign of brimstone.

Copyright © 2003 by The Toronto Star

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