Home Science EverywhereHistory SARS in the city

It’s ten years since SARS, and last week I shared some SARS memories on stage at Litmus Test, as part of their “Health & Safety” theme. Here is the story I told.

I did my PhD in Canada, in a biochemistry lab. One morning, in my first year, I was one of the last people to arrive at my research building that day. At the entrance, I swiped my card, filled out a form, and then had my temperature taken – with an ear thermometer – by one of several volunteer nurses.

After a few seconds, he took the thermometer out of my ear, and immediately called over to one of the other guys: “I’ve got another undead one here!”. The other guy came to look, and agreed I was definitely the coldest person to have walked through the door that entire morning. We all laughed about my undeadness, I got up, and walked to my lab to start my work for the day.

Now, this obviously raises a few questions. Most importantly: was I a vampire or a zombie? Although they never specified, I believe that I must have been declared a zombie, since it was late morning, and even in Canadian winters it’s light outside at that time.

But why were they taking my temperature, and why did this seem like such a casual thing?

This was the winter of 2003, in Toronto, during the height of the SARS epidemic.

My lab was in a hospital, and even though nobody in our building worked with patients, we all suddenly had to deal with a bunch of security protocols that were put in place to prevent spread of the virus:

In the first few weeks of the SARS epidemic, people working in one hospital were no longer allowed to meet with people working in other hospitals. That was slightly inconvenient for the Biochemistry department where I was doing my degree, because the PhD students were spread over several hospital research facilities, so we could no longer hold our weekly seminars.

To get into any of the hospitals, including our research building, you had to answer a series of questions every time you went inside:

Do you have a fever? Have you been coughing? Have you been near a person with SARS symptoms? Have you travelled to China within the last ten days?

At the start, they made you answer these questions *every* time you went in, even if you just got back from lunch, and I’d answer “NO. I have not been to China since you last asked me that FOUR HOURS AGO.”

After about a week, it got more efficient, and they would give you a handwritten day pass that cleared you for the entire day. Sometimes the person handing out the day passes each morning wrote motivational quotes on the back of the pass, or decorated them with little stickers. It was a little surprise each morning.

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The temperature checks at the door didn’t last very long either. A few weeks into the epidemic, everyone in the city knew very well that you had to stay home with even the slightest hint of a fever.

But aside from extra checks at hospitals, and a significant increase in the sale and use of hand sanitizers, life in Toronto was mostly unaffected by the city’s status as the Western hemisphere’s SARS capital.

People went to work and school, and spent time with friends. Most people didn’t change their routines, or only slightly. I remember in particular sitting in the pub after an orchestra concert, mentioning about how I actually shouldn’t have been allowed to go, since we had orchestra members working in different hospitals, but it didn’t bother anyone. One person mentioned that she had been more self-conscious about touching her face with her hands after riding the subway, and I nodded and agreed “yeah, totally…” – and then realized I had been sitting with my face in my hands for the past few minutes.

From outside of Toronto the city must have seemed an apocalyptic disaster. The World Health Organization had even imposed a travel warning for a while, and a big international biochemistry conference – where I was scheduled to volunteer – had to be cancelled because too many foreign attendees were afraid to come to Toronto.

But from the inside, unless you were directly affected by the virus, it wasn’t so bad. It was actually kind of…nice. Everyone was talking about it, and it quickly became this collective experience. If someone coughed on the bus or on the subway, you could make eye contact with a stranger and make this face that meant “haha, hope that wasn’t SARS!”. Everyone was going through the exact same thing.

A couple of months after SARS, Toronto was hit by the massive 48-hour blackout that also struck New York and many places in between. I was out of town for that, and when I came back, it was like I’d missed an amazing party that everyone except me had attended. People were talking about it for months, and everyone had great blackout stories. I couldn’t believe I missed it.

SARS was the same. Even though it was much less of a party than the blackout, because people actually died here, it was one of those “you had to be there” things. I *was* there for it, and I have all these time and place specific stories about cancelled conferences and seminars and bureaucracy and being declared undead on my way to work.

Experiencing the SARS epidemic when I was new to the city very quickly made me feel a part of the community. Cities don’t always have a sense of community, but when you all have the same collective experience, it brings people together, and you end up joking about zombies at a health safety checkpoint. For me it ended up being a great introduction to a city I still love, and it also made me look at city life with new eyes. I really love urban communities, and I think this is partly because I’ve seen how great they can become when they all get together and laugh about a deadly virus that’s trying to kill us all.


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Maria June 3, 2013 - 9:29 PM

We really miss you.

Eva June 9, 2013 - 11:24 AM

Miss you guys too! 🙁

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