Skip to main content

During a public health, let’s call it, “situation,” authorities are assigned the unenviable task of informing the public without inciting it to panic. This is nearly impossible. The very action of assembling a panel for a live news conference on a Saturday about the first diagnosis of a strange new virus in Canada conveys that something rather extraordinary is going on.

But the message – the articulated one, anyway – is not to panic, to calm down, to try not to think of pink elephants. You’re thinking of pink elephants now, aren’t you?

By all accounts, we are so far faring much better than we did during the SARS crisis of roughly 17 years ago. SARS made its way to Canada back then on a curious path, after a doctor, who was treating SARS patients in China, checked in to Hong Kong’s Metropole Hotel. He then infected 17 others at the hotel, without having any direct contact.

Two of those people flew back to Canada, and the Toronto-bound passenger transmitted the virus to her immediate family members. One of those family members went to a Toronto emergency room, where he exposed other patients and health-care workers until, after 21 hours, he was finally put in isolation. SARS eventually killed 44 people in Toronto.

The lack of information from China about SARS at the time was part of the reason Canada found itself so unprepared. Front-line physicians and nurses in Toronto simply didn’t know about the new virus that was spreading throughout China and Hong Kong, which is why medical staff initially treated that emergency-room patient as a case of pneumonia and, later, tuberculosis.

Back in China, health authorities knew about an outbreak of a new illness in Guangdong province in late 2002, but the government heavily controlled the flow of information for months thereafter. It wasn’t until April, 2003, that state media began reporting on the SARS outbreak, and even then, the numbers were heavily underreported.

So if there is a reason to worry about the novel coronavirus, known as 2019-nCoV, which has made its way to Ontario and British Columbia, recent history thus provides much to offer. Our information is only as good as the gatekeepers who control it.

China appears to be more forthright with information this time around, sharing the genetic sequence of the coronavirus weeks ago and committing to regular status updates. But its response to the outbreak, which has included imposing a quarantine on tens of millions of people and pledging to build a new hospital in weeks, seems vastly disproportionate to the scale of the outbreak. To the reported scale of the outbreak, that is.

On Monday, China’s National Health Commission reported 2,835 confirmed cases. That number jumped 60 per cent overnight, to 4,515 confirmed cases, on Tuesday. Hong Kong researchers, however, have warned that the number of coronavirus cases could be 30 times that, estimating 44,000 cases in the Wuhan region alone. There has also been concern about potential coronavirus-related deaths not being officially listed as such, which would have the effect of artificially lowering the mortality rate, which has been pegged at around 3 per cent of those diagnosed.

Canadian health authorities have repeatedly assured the public that our “system is working,” that infected persons have been identified and isolated relatively quickly, that health professionals are taking necessary precautions, that screening measures have been implemented at airports and so forth. At the time of writing, the government has given no indication it plans to pursue more extreme measures, such as shutting down travel from China altogether (though some airlines, including Air Canada, have suspended flights). Without knowing more about the virus and the scale of the outbreak, it is difficult to say whether such a measure would be prudent or simply incite more alarm.

The system is still not perfect. The first coronavirus patient in Canada was symptomatic upon arrival at Toronto’s Pearson Airport, but nevertheless went home before going to hospital a day later. And it has taken several days for health authorities just to notify others passengers near the affected patient on that plane.

Yet it is probably fair enough to say the system is working – as well as a system can work when the source of the outbreak has a lousy reputation for truthfulness. Indeed, the biggest Canadian mistakes of the SARS era appear to have been acknowledged and remedied, yet one of the most crucial takeaways from that outbreak – that information from the Chinese government might be outdated or deceptive – comes with no straightforward solutions.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.