Prime Minister Jean Chretien has called a Cabinet meeting in Toronto instead of Ottawa to show the World Health Organisation erred in warning against travel to Canada’s largest city because of Sars.
Chretien said the federal government would contribute to a £11 million marketing campaign to reassure the world that Toronto and all of Canada remains a safe and enjoyable tourist destination.
“We all believe that the World Health Organisation came to the wrong conclusion,” Chretien said. “We believe that Toronto is a good place to visit and it is a safe place.”
In Toronto, which has the largest outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome outside of Asia, empty shops in a trendy downtown mall showed the impact of the Who warning against nonessential travel to Toronto.
“Usually by now, with the warmer weather, we have people from everywhere shopping here,” Hillie Schmiedhammer of Jewels by Koby said of the Eaton Centre, a mall amid gleaming skyscrapers a few blocks from the Lake Ontario waterfront. “But look – even McDonald’s is empty.”
Health authorities who have worked for more than a month to contain the spread of Sars lambasted the Who advisory as improper and unwarranted, but acknowledged there was little chance the UN agency would reverse itself.
Canadian Health Minister Anne McLellan spoke to Who head Gro Harlem Brundtland about the travel advisory, saying the two agreed to increased discussion among experts about the situation.
“I am hopeful that information will in a timely manner get the WHO to reconsider its advisory,” McLellan said, while Ontario Premier Ernie Eves called for an immediate reversal.
“The actions of the Who are wrong and they are irresponsible,” Eves said. “The decision is not based on scientific fact.”
By including Toronto on the list of Sars hot zones – joining Hong Kong, Beijing, and the Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Shanxi – the Who fuelled a perception that an epidemic exists here.
Canadian experts deny that, noting the more than 300 probable and suspected cases is far lower than in China and Hong Kong. They also pointed out that 132 of the 257 probable and suspected cases in Ontario have been released from hospitals.
Jim Flaherty, the Ontario enterprise minister, predicted ”serious economic harm in the hotel and convention business,” a mainstay of the Toronto economy.
The Toronto City Council held an emergency meeting with Mayor Mel Lastman depicting a grim situation.
“The businesses are hurting, they’re hurting bad,” he said. “People’s lives are being adversely affected by both the disease and public perception of this crisis.”
He said he intended to ask banks to allow deferred payments on loans and mortgages, after previously asking businesses to try to keep employees on their payrolls.
“I don’t want to see Sars cost anyone their jobs, their homes, or their businesses,” Lastman said.
It’s too late for some in the tourism industry, said Paul Clifford, president of a local hotel and restaurant union. Hundreds of bell boys, cleaning staff, waiters and others already have been laid off, he said.