What's the difference between severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Melvin Douglas Lastman, you ask? Well, we know for sure that Lastman will be gone after November 10. SARS, on the other hand, may be around for a while longer than that.
As Sheela Basrur, this burg's remarkable medical officer of health, put it recently: "At the end of the day, SARS will become a part of everyday life for our city." Like the common cold and the dreaded flu, this mutated coronavirus will just be something we learn to live with. Not long ago we were worrying we might be in the same kind of pickle when it came to the hair-plugged chief magistrate who now occasionally haunts City Hall.
The municipal mindset isn't going to snap back into shape just because Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the World Heath Organization's internationally respected director general, has lifted the travel advisory her UN agency issued on April 23, urging tourists to avoid Toronto. Maybe there wouldn't have been an advisory in the first place if the city's elected champion had made his presence felt soon after the SARS outbreak was first reported here.
Perhaps the feds would have been moved to do something about "exit screening" before Harlem Brundtland made it a condition for the removal of the travel advisory. Maybe the province would have acted sooner to help the city's board of health offset what could easily become a $10-million SARS hit on the $120-million budget council begrudgingly approved for spending on all manner of municipal health matters in 2003.
Maybe. Maybe not. It's moot at this point. Better to move on and deal with the situation as it is.
"It's already having a major impact," councillor Joe Mihevc, the health board chair, says of the budgetary fallout from SARS since it arrived here in late February. "We are way behind on West Nile virus. Syphilis is on the rise in Toronto. We have not done the AIDS work scheduled, and of course TB is a strong issue. There are things that have been left unattended that we need to get back to."
Mihevc leaves it to the mayor to expound on how long it will take for the city's tourism, entertainment and hospitality industries to recover from recent business losses whose estimated dollar value is in the hundreds of millions.
"I think we can do it within a year" Lastman said Tuesday after the W.H.O. gave the city a conditional all-clear on the travel front and before he headed off to watch the Blue Jays play baseball for a buck. Now, if the city, Queen's Park and Ottawa can just agree on which advertising agency gets to oversee its $25-million budget, an international PR blitz can begin to convince the world (and hordes of locals) that Toronto is theirs to rediscover.
In the meantime, local voters can get back to pondering which of the candidates to replace Lastman might be better than him in a crisis. Most folks would answer "any one of them." So it was for good reason that four of the main registrants for the fall mayoralty race made sure their faces were seen during the special council debate that raged last week after the W.H.O. shocked much of Toronto's political leadership into realizing it had a problem on its hands.
Councillor David Miller was paid to be there, of course. And he earned his money trying to get the SARS issue on the agenda at council's regular April meeting two weeks ago. No luck there, unfortunately. But public criticism of political inaction did force the extraordinary session that former mayor Barbara Hall, ex-MP John Nunziata and backroom boy John Tory showed up to observe and be observed at.
"I don't see it as an issue for political gamesmanship," says Hall, widely acknowledged as the early front-runner in a race that still has more than six months to go. But, she says, "there was a lot of anxiety and fear in the community, and visible, in-touch leadership is so important." She recalls when she was the old city of Toronto's mayor in 1995 how she handled the tragic subway crash that left three passengers dead and many more injured. "I went to the accident site and stayed there all night," Hall says. "Afterwards, I got so much feedback from people."
Nunziata says he "would have been on a plane to Geneva" as soon as the W.H.O. issued its travel advisory. And he would have been at the Scarborough convenience store where a cabbie was shot to death last week and the strip mall explosion in Etobicoke that killed seven people. "The mayor should be there when these things happen," Nunziata believes. He says he was shocked at council's "negligence" in responding to the SARS crisis. "There should have been a war room somewhere here," he insists.
Nunziata is quick to heap scorn on Tory – his competition for right-wing support – for failing to prevent the Canadian Cable Television Association from postponing its summit here this week out of fear of SARS.
Tory won't have of any of it. The man who co-chaired Lastman's megacity election campaigns in 1997 and 2000 says, "I did everything I could to convince the board that the city was safe... but in the end they made a decision, and I was on the losing end of that." He's now doing what he can to ensure that the summit is rescheduled for Toronto later this year.
Tory maintains that the SARS crisis is "not the right sort of occasion" for mayoralty hopefuls to "get political." But he concedes the W.H.O.'s travel advisory "landed in a vacuum" at City Hall and shook the public's confidence in its municipal leadership. "It's obvious there's a very acute need for the ability to engage in what I'll call retail communication," Tory says. "It seemed very late in the process that the three governments actually sat at the same table.'
Miller says he hopes Tory is more skilled at retail communication than he was in convincing his cable associates to stick with Toronto in its hour of need. But the left-of-centre councillor is more interested in talking about wholesale changes that have been wrought in the city's relationship with the senior levels of government.
"That's the most important thing out of all of this," Miller says. "We've proved that Toronto matters nationally and provincially. SARS brought the federal and provincial governments to the table, and that's where we've got to keep them. But the recovery plan that's starting to unfold now should have been started three weeks ago."
And to think it's only May 1 and SARS has yet to go away.