Skip to content

Learning from history

Jody Vance: Reports of another superbug in China are a little too reminiscent of the SARS outbreak in 2002.

In November 2002 we heard buzz about a wicked virus. “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome,” or SARS. It was a world away, in China. We may have thought “how scary for them.”

When the World Health Organization (WHO) reported on confirmed cases and deaths – and how quickly it was spreading – it became rather concerning even a world away.

That January, the first “super-spreader” brought SARS to Hong Kong. By the time we learned this one man spread SARS like wildfire simply by checking into a hotel, the die was cast. 23 guests developed SARS from that one man, and it’s estimated 80% of Hong Kong cases were a result of his visit. (Thus the title “super-spreader.”)

One of those infected was an elderly woman who traveled home to Toronto from Hong Kong on February 23rd. She died in her home March 5th. She didn’t know that she had infected her son, who became so ill he went to Scarborough Grace Hospital, and died March 13th.

During that February 2003 I was living in Toronto, working at Sportsnet in Scarborough co-hosting the supper hour national show with Jim Van Horne. It was the best of times — until in a blink of an eye it was the worst of times.

We found ourselves down the street from SARS, quite literally. I remember reading the stories in horror, how all the respirators in the GTA were occupied with suspected cases.

Quarantine. Masks. Deserted public spaces. Fear.

After that, the way Canadians considered superbugs changed. Or at least, it should have.

18 years later, Vancouver could feel similar impacts from the Coronavirus if we don’t take action in a timely fashion. On Monday, I reached out to scientist and vaccinology advocate Peter Jay Hotez and asked what should be done.

His quick reply explained how it is vital we “recognize that cities like Vancouver are in the cross hairs and vulnerable.” Dr. Hotez says his team is “developing a vaccine, we need to accelerate this.”

That word accelerate stands out. In 2002 the People’s Republic of China tried to quiet coverage when SARS started its march from remote farms, garnering great criticism globally. We need to have our ears up on how this very fluid situation expands.

Canadians need to know it’s up to us, and our government, to react appropriately. Managing a superbug is not the time to be polite. Travellers, heed warnings of the WHO educate yourselves. It’s not about fearmongering, but informing.

Travelling to and from Asia, China in particular during the Lunar New Year January 25th, will be met with a much-increased medical screening. Be ready. If this bug spreads like SARS, be ready to have your travel plans changed spontaneously.

Being aware of Coronavirus, and its travels might impact the rest of your life. It’s on all of us to ensure friends and family are in the know.

Just ask the families of the 44 people who died of SARS in Canada, or the 438 suspected cases. We honour them by being more diligent in our handling of this outbreak. It was reported yesterday that the first case of Coronavirus has reached Washington State. Let’s learn from history.

And while I remember the moment in Scarborough with fear, it should be noted that one of my greatest experiences of true community was attending SARSfest at Downsview Park July 30th 2003. I hung out with 450,000 friends to celebrate that the worst had passed.

It was a great concert that we remember for all the wrong reasons.

Jody Vance is a born and raised Vancouverite who’s spent 30 years in both local and national media. The first woman in the history of Canadian TV to host her own sports show in primetime, since 2011 she’s been working in both TV and radio covering news and current affairs.