SARS, Toronto and Doctors Basrur and Low

I watched the SARS Crisis in Toronto unfold from a guest house in Japan.

In 2002, I quit my first job and left Toronto to teach English in Tokyo. My plan was to spend a year teaching and then travel through China, Hong Kong and end up on a beach in Bali or Thailand. Then SARS happened.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the first case of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) occurred in Foshan City, Guangdong Province, on November 16, 2002. By February 2003, over a hundred people would be dead.

In Japan, we knew that Japan was keeping a very close eye on its neighbour. But I didn’t really feel connected to the situation – it was happening ‘over there.’

Then on March 5, 2003, a 78-year-old Toronto woman died of SARS at Scarborough Grace Hospital. She had just returned from a trip to Hong Kong. Five of her family members were also infected. Forty-four people would die in Toronto before the outbreak ran its course. Toronto suffered a major outbreak of SARS. It made international news.

In my guest house outside of Tokyo, I remember watching Doctors Sheela Basrur and Donald Low holding press conferences on the BBC and on CNN as well as all the Canadian networks.

While CNN portrayed the Toronto SARS crisis with the tone of “the end is nigh, don’t cross the border,” the BBC took a more measured view. It was hard to know what to believe. My family lived in Mississauga but my dad worked in downtown Toronto. He could get infected! Intellectually I knew he would be fine. He was healthy and not involved with hospitals and front-line worker but I was thousands of miles away. Dad, with his usual wit pointed out that “No, the four horsemen of the apocalypse were not riding down Yonge street.”

The press conferences held by Drs. Basrur and Low became my link to what was happening in Toronto. Their calm, matter-of-fact demeanour reassured me, the way they answered questions and explained exactly what was going on – the virus, how it was spread, the nature of SARS, the risk factors, and how Toronto Public Health was dealing with the situation.


When Dr. Low was quarantined, I worried about him and hoped he would get better. He did and came back to let us know, to let me know that Toronto was dealing with the situation.

I was the only Canadian in my guest house for a period of time. That, for some reason, made me the defacto “expert” on SARS in Toronto. As if I knew anymore about what was going on just because I carried a Canadian passport.

WHO removed Toronto from the list of areas with a “recent local transmission” of SARS on July 2, 2003.

Doctor Basrur died of cancer on June 2, 2008.

Doctor Low passed away last week, September 18, 2013, also of cancer, just 10 years after the crisis. His family just released this video where he urges Canadians to support assisted suicide.

The two of them became my window to home during the SARS crisis and now they’re both gone.







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