SARS Panic

SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) has shocked the world. Most cases are in Asia, where the disease is thought to have originated, but it's also a very real presence in Canada. Toronto has had the world's fourth-largest outbreak, and is the only place outside of Asia where people have died. According to the Toronto Star newspaper, 7,000 people are currently in quarantine in the city, and health officials there expect the numbers to grow. Neil Smith, a customs officer at Pearson Airport, Toronto, reports on what it's like to live in the shadow of a potentially deadly disease.

I slept badly again last night. Ever since SARS became front-page news, I'm wary about every passenger I meet coming from Asia. How can I tell, just by looking at them, whether they're sick or not?

While shaving this morning, I turned the radio on, and immediately wished that I hadn't: two more people have died of SARS. I turned it off, and looked at myself in the mirror for a long time. I wonder if I've passed them on the street - or at the airport.

Now I'm in uniform, ready to start clearing people through customs. The incoming-flights schedule says there are several Asian flights today. Great. I should have taken the day off.

The whole airport is on full alert for people who look ill. As a customs officer, my job has just got harder. Now I'm not only looking for drug smugglers, kidnappers, terrorists and other criminals, I also have to screen people for illness. I'm trained to notice evasive answers and suspicious passports; I'm not a doctor.

Here come passengers from China, all wearing masks. Nobody I talk to looks or sounds noticeably sick, but to be safe, doctors check their temperature and breathing before clearing them fully. I'm about to go for lunch when a woman approaches.

She looks tired - which is normal after a long flight - but she's very flushed. My heart sinks and I signal to the doctors. One approaches immediately and gently talks to the woman, who refuses to have her temperature taken.

I can't believe this. Doesn't she watch the news? I move my chair as far back as I can, hold my breath and glare at her. Finally, some security guards come over, and the woman is escorted, protesting, to the isolation room.

I have no appetite, but go for lunch anyway. My colleague John jokes about the WHO (World Health Organization) advisory against travel to Toronto. He says that if there's nobody to clear into the country, we'll get paid for doing nothing! I laugh, but suggest we ask for danger pay.

My mobile rings: it's Kate, calling about our dinner date. She says she's not going anywhere near the restaurants in Chinatown, since SARS is mostly concentrated in Toronto's huge Chinese community. It was brought into Canada after two Chinese people returned from Hong Kong, unknowingly carrying the virus, and infected their families and friends.

It spread from there, and has now entered the hospitals. Doctors and nurses, who were treating victims before anything was really known about the disease, have now fallen sick. SARS isn't exclusively an Asian disease, but Chinatown is where it all started.

I tell Kate that unless you have direct contact with an infected person, and they're coughing on you or something like that, the risk of infection is very low. I suggest going to Greektown for dinner, but she says she isn't going out at all until this is over. She's not alone: Toronto's restaurants, clubs and theatres, usually overflowing, are half-empty now. It's not logical, but people are scared of what they might catch just by breathing the air.

I'm finishing my coffee when my boss calls me into his office. He says that a week ago, before our security measures were fully in place, I cleared an elderly Chinese woman into Canada from Hong Kong. She has since sickened and died, and her whole family has fallen ill. Doctors are calling her a "superspreader", meaning that she was highly contagious, far more so than most people. My boss says that I need to get tested, and possibly quarantined.

When I can think straight, I say that we didn't have close contact, and I haven't shown any symptoms. He's quiet, and then reminds me that the incubation period is ten days, and that superspreaders are much more dangerous than other SARS victims. I have to go to the isolation room immediately. I tell him I will, but first I have to call my mother. I live with her.

My mother is calm: she says the risk is very low, but she'll go to the hospital immediately. I remind her to call ahead. The staff will have to wear protective clothing, and keep her separated from other people, and will need time to arrange things.

As I walk to the isolation room, my colleagues flinch away from me, although they try to smile supportively. I enter the room, and a doctor immediately takes my temperature and listens to my breathing. Everything's normal.

If a person doesn't have any symptoms, the quarantine is voluntary. I'm not sure what to do; on the one hand, I've been exposed to the virus. On the other, there's no sign of any problem. I'm free to go - but should I?

Finally, I drive home. My mother comes home, also symptom-free, also confused. We talk, and decide to voluntarily quarantine ourselves for a week.

It's a strange week: the telephone rings constantly, people ask how we are, but nobody visits. We watch the television for SARS updates, and hear that the WHO has lifted the travel advisory. We feel personally involved in the crisis, but separated and alone at the same time.

After several symptom-free days, we visit the hospital. The doctor checks us over, and announces, in a relieved voice, that we're both healthy. My mother and I look at each other, and suddenly breathe a lot easier. We hug, for the first time in a week.