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Reprinted from Red Eye, published by the Chicago Tribune, 2003.
Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.
The Chicago Tribune Red Eye
Published April 21, 2002
"SARS, what SARS?"
The first call came two weeks ago. It was my mother. "Maybe you shouldn’t come up to Toronto. You know we
have SARS here." At the time, I dismissed it as the kind of overreaction characteristic of a certain type
of Eastern European Jewish mother. I was planning a two-week trip to Toronto, beginning with Passover and
ending with a week at the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival. I had already paid hundreds of
dollars in festival fees, and I wasn’t about to throw that away because of a few foreign germs. Besides,
living in New York, where if it doesn’t happen here, it isn’t really happening, the SARS epidemic was
barely a blip on my personal radar. So I reassured her that I would be fine and that I had no intention
of canceling the trip.
As the travel day approached, the news from Toronto got worse and even people in New York started talking
about it. My neighbor in Brooklyn offered me a #59 mask, whatever that was, to wear on the airplane, and
I sheepishly bought a box of antibacterial wipes at the supermarket.
I headed to the airport wondering what to expect. Flight attendants wearing surgical masks? Immigration
officers in full biohazard suits, spraying us with antibacterial mist, questioning us about the last time
we ate in Chinatown and if anyone from Hong Kong had asked us to carry a package for them? Perhaps empty
streets, people huddled in their quarantined homes, zombies wandering the back alleys looking for fresh
flesh…sorry, wrong story line…
What I actually found in Toronto was a crowded movie theater Friday, a filled-to capacity performance of
"Madame Butterfly" Saturday, and an almost-full health club Sunday. But just between us, people were not
wiping down the weight machines after using them – icky at any time and shocking to me in light of the
Truth be told, now that I’ve been here several days, it’s hard to figure out what’s more upsetting to the
good citizens of Toronto – the SARS epidemic, or the Toronto Maple Leafs being down 3-2 against
Philadelphia in the Stanley Cup playoffs. I haven’t seen a single surgical mask, but you can’t go a block
without some sign of home-team spirit - countless "Go Leafs Go" banners and one house with a life-size
plastic moose on the roof festooned with Christmas lights and a Leafs flag flying high off its antlers.
No one I know is sick. In fact, almost all the infections can be traced back to two specific hospital
outbreaks and the attitude seems to be "it’s happening to other people, not us." Still, many are
genuinely concerned and the media is warning that the situation will get worse before it gets better. The
collateral damages can also be keenly felt. All the hospitals and nursing homes are closed to visitors,
volunteer services and home visits have been suspended and meal deliveries for the sick and aged are left
at front doors. Conventions have been cancelled and Toronto’s multiple Chinatowns are really suffering.
But SARS hasn’t stopped any of my own friends and relatives from greeting me with open arms and hugs and
kisses, all accompanied by some comment about SARS and the determination to share the love anyway.
So the new bottle of purple antibacterial goo is in my parents’ kitchen and my wipes are in my purse. I
look twice when someone near me sneezes, and then I get on with my day, knowing the conversations will be
not about SARS but rather the Leafs chances for tying things up Monday night. Go Leafs Go. And go wash
Therese Shechter is a documentary filmmaker living in New York
Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune Red Eye