By Janet Guttsman
The only time Reuters banned non-essential travel to the place where I was working was Toronto, Canada, hardly a city that comes to mind when you think about risk. I can understand barring travel to Damascus, Gaza or Donetsk. Or to Moscow, where I worked while the Soviet Union broke apart.
But Toronto? It’s a city with a reputation for being bland and boringly safe. Why?
It was a strange world in early 2003, and a deadly respiratory illness called SARS had spread from Guangdong, China, around the world. Toronto became the epicenter outside Asia, with some 400 cases.
Our New York-based bosses, wary of anything that might spread the disease, followed guidelines from the World Health Organization and said all non-essential travel was absolutely, totally out.
SARS stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, an illness that started off like flu, developed quickly into something more like pneumonia and proved remarkably easy to transmit from one person to another, especially in the confines of an airplane or a hospital. The fatality rate was high. Almost 10 percent of the 8,000 people diagnosed with SARS died. In Toronto, 44 died, an even higher death rate.
In many ways SARS illustrates what happens in a world where millions of people are traveling every day and where planes take passengers across a dozen time zones in a single, overnight hop. A world we’ve grown accustomed to.
‘On a personal level, it was a difficult balance.’
The first Toronto patient was a 78-year-old woman who had been visiting Hong Kong. Her son, who nursed her before her death, then fell sick, checked into the emergency room and infected two other people.
Scarily, almost all Toronto’s 400 victims were from within the medical community, either fellow patients or the first doctors and nurses to treat a potential SARS sufferer. Hospitals turned into fortresses, banning visitors, canceling surgeries and supplying masks to anyone who stepped through the door.
In the spring and early summer of 2003, 25,000 people in Toronto were placed in quarantine, asked to stay away from work and school. The health scare took a heavy toll on the economy as tourists and shoppers stayed away.
We kept our reporters away from the hospitals where people fell ill. There were people to talk to elsewhere, and we didn’t want to risk spreading the disease. Reporters from other outlets who talked their way into the wards ended up in quarantine themselves, and we did not want to be sidelined, too.
On a personal level, it was a difficult balance. There was the story to cover and I didn’t want to panic. But I didn’t want to get sick either.
By the time the travel ban kicked in, we felt we had dodged the SARS bullet in Toronto. The panic faded as new cases dwindled, and it became clear the risk was inside hospitals. Unlike in Asia, where SARS spread in the community at large, it was rare to see someone wearing surgical masks in the street. A second cluster of cases was yet to come, but it wasn’t creepy any more. You can get used to anything.
There was a silver lining. In a country that has to fight to get noticed outside its borders, our little Toronto reporting team was at the top of the global news agenda. None of us got sick, nobody had to go into quarantine, and we were writing the biggest story in the world. It reminded me why I love being a journalist.
(For more News-Decoder articles on health and wellness, click here.)
Janet Guttsman has spent almost three decades in international journalism. She was based in Germany as the Berlin Wall came down, in Moscow as the Soviet Union fell apart and as a financial correspondent in the United States during the economic crises of the late 1990s. Most recently she was Reuters bureau chief in Canada.