January 28, 2020

Lessons Learned - My Statement on the Coronavirus

As we receive confirmation of the second presumptive case of the novel coronavirus in Toronto,  I want to thank Toronto's Medical Officer of Health, and the full Toronto Public Health (TPH) team for their rapid and comprehensive response. I have full confidence in TPH’s ability to manage the spread of infectious diseases like this one and keep our residents safe and healthy. 

My confidence is not misplaced. The City of Toronto learned a lot about infectious disease management in the aftermath of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003. I am hoping that we have also learned how uninformed fears can perpetuate racist stereotypes and other anti-Chinese discrimination.

In 2003, I was President of the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter, a social justice organization promoting equality and acceptance for the Chinese Canadian community. I remember as the full impact and severity of SARS was beginning to be understood, we began to hear reports from Chinese residents in Toronto of incidents of overt and covert discrimination. 

Chinatowns across the city saw revenues drop, as people allowed their fear of SARS, and their prejudices about its transmission to drive them away from Chinese-operated businesses. People of Chinese background were shunned at schools, harassed in the streets, taunted on public transit. and many more felt ostracized and isolated from the rest of the city. 

As local residents feared for the health and safety of their friends and families in China, they saw their neighbours and school mates turn their backs on them.

Dr. Sheela Basrur, Toronto's Medical Officer of Health at the time, spoke strongly in support of the Chinese community during the SARS outbreak. As the first woman of colour to be named Medical Officer of Health, she used her position as a trusted public figure to work with my organization and urge calm across the city, and to speak out against the ongoing discrimination of local Chinese residents. 

I also remember Tecla Lin, one of the first health workers to put aside the risk to her own health, take on additional shifts and volunteer to take care of SARS patients. She was not only the mother of my high school friend, Tecla was the second nurse to succumb to SARS. 

Today, Toronto is home to almost 300,000 residents of visible Chinese descent. I know that when people are afraid, it can be easy to look for blame. But I hope as a city we take inspiration from Dr. Basrur and Nurse Tecla, and to not give in to xenophobia and racism. We all need to stay calm, work together to remain safe and healthy, and continue to build our city on a solid foundation of compassion and love.

Megan Poole

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