Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
When the World Health Organisation added my hometown of Toronto to the list of Sars hotspots for tourists to avoid, I was just settling in for a three-week holiday. You’d never guess that the city with a population of three million was being held hostage by a disease, apart that is, from a few scared tourists donning masks at the airport and an eerily quiet Chinatown. Torontonians were too cool for masks – and besides, at 16 Canadian bucks (£7) a pop (instead of the usual $1 [45p]), who could afford them?
Canada’s largest city was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief when the ban was lifted just a week later – the outbreak appeared to be on the wane. But not before the damage was done. To fight the faltering tourist economy – the city’s hotels sat two-thirds empty, causing losses of CAN$125m and thousands of layoffs – Sars-Town became a bargain-shopper’s paradise.
But despite all the discounts – including cheap petrol (only in Toronto was gas 50 cents a litre just weeks after the Iraq war), tax-free weekends, and $1 baseball games (we still lost), despite Ontario premier Ernie Eves and Toronto mayor Mel Lastman beaming at you from every television with the news that Toronto was a safe place to visit, Sars has come back with a vengeance. At the time of writing, five people have died in the new outbreak and more than 7,000 people are in quarantine.
Sars is not as scary as you might believe. Granted, it’s unsettling to know that there’s no test, no cure, and it can kill you. But more people die from the flu, or from falling down the stairs than from the mystery virus. Globally, cases can still be counted in four figures.
In Toronto, the number of deaths hovers around 30 and the average age of death is a ripe old 71. Most people who died also had an underlying illness, like the 99-year old woman whose age may have played a role. You only needed to listen to my nurse mom wearing her Sars gear – the beekeeper visor, mask, disposable gown, and gloves – and droning on about how more than 3,000 children die each day from malaria – to know there are more devastating diseases out there, and to feel assured that we’ll beat this one.
But hey, this is the West, and boy, do we ever hate to be reminded of our vulnerability, or even worse, to be put in the same category as those poor Chinese.
What’s more frightening is why the rest of the industrialised world could prevent Sars from spiralling out of control and Ontario couldn’t. We prided ourselves on not being China – but now officials say that the numbers were deliberately lowballed and we let our guard down too soon, perhaps in an effort to restore Toronto’s tarnished image. We knew that all it took was some simple quarantine and health measures to kiss the virus goodbye.
But when Sars seeped into our system in March, our political leaders at all three levels of government laid low at the golf course or outside the province, ignoring all criticism. We were left in the dark to harvest our paranoia. Asian businesses and restaurants were reduced to ghost towns. The disease became linked to Asians rather than Ontario’s very own hospitals, but there weren’t any leaders around to correct the false association until it started to hurt the economy at large.
When the governments finally acted, they seemed to be solely motivated out of the desire to be seen doing something. The Tory government may promise pots of money, but it’s slow in coming unless you count the flashy ad campaign and photo ops. Toronto has a bill of $10m in public health and ambulance costs that has yet to be paid. Health workers have yet to see compensation promised to them by the province for lost wages because of time off in quarantine. Meanwhile, our prime minister remains to be convinced that Sars merits the $717m he freed up to deal with the 1998 ice storm.
The real reason Sars appears so damaging is that it has illuminated the steady erosion of Ontario’s health care system and our blasé approach to public health.
After all, it was Ontario’s conservative government (that incidentally, is on the verge of calling an election) that caused this crisis with their cuts to the public health system in the past few years. The Tories downloaded public health to our cash-strapped cities – it is now the joint responsibility of the municipal, provincial and federal governments but there’s little communication between the three. Just look at the way different parts of Canada dealt with the fatal disease. British Columbia quickly controlled the spread; the province warned doctors about a worrisome flu outbreak in Hong Kong as early as January. Ontario’s doctors received no such warnings.
Infection controls in hospitals are underfunded and remain in a shoddy state. As Sars has shown, our hospitals are what’s killing us – most of them don’t even have epidemic response plans. Many operations, some of which could have saved lives, have been cancelled as hospitals struggled to cope with the Sars outbreak – again.
Then there’s the nursing shortage, thanks to a Tory decision in the mid-1990s to close hospitals and lay off thousands of full-time nurses because they were ‘redundant’. Health minister Tony Clement admitted that it took the Sars outbreak for him to realise that 15 per cent of our nurses were employed on a casual basis, which means that many of them work in multiple hospitals to make ends meet. But when Sars hit, nurses were restricted from moving around in an attempt to contain the virus. Burnout was the next big headache, and hospitals have been forced to rely on private agency nurses who get paid up to five times as much as staff nurses.
It’s time for the governments to forget the PR fuss. They need to pull the plug on their self-congratulatory advertising. What we really need are substantive policy changes to our health system. As for Sars, disbelieve all the hype, hop on that plane while it’s still cheap and take in some real Toronto culture. There’s no better time to explore the city sans Americans and on a shoestring. It’s yours to discover – just stay away from the killer hospitals and pray that you don’t fall ill.
The police spend little of their time making arrests, and most crimes are not solved, writes Alex Vitale – their real purpose is social control
Many important things happened on conference floor, reports Alex Nunns – but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers
Radhika Desai says Capital by Karl Marx is still an essential read on the 150th anniversary of its publication
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes
Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference
Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki
Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going