CANADA: Health cuts aggravated SARS

July 23, 2003


TORONTO — Ruthless cuts to public health spending didn't cause severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), but inadequate funding of health services by Canada's federal and Ontario provincial governments certainly contributed to the scale of the deadly outbreak in Canada's largest city. That's the conclusion reached by a study conducted by the Toronto Star, the country's largest circulation newspaper.

Toronto was among the first areas affected by SARS after the illness moved out of China in late February and spread around the world. There have been 252 cases of SARS diagnosed in Canada and 38 deaths from the illness, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The outbreak's epicentre in Canada was Toronto, where more than 27,000 people were put into quarantine. The latest fatality, 51-year-old Nelia Laroza, was a nurse at a Toronto-area hospital. She died of SARS on June 29.

According to the July 2 Toronto Star, "the war against SARS was hampered by poor intelligence, too few armaments and communication systems that were no match for the disease". Specifically, public health officials lack state-of-the-art computer systems needed to keep up with rapidly spreading disease.

In fact, just 16 months before SARS hit Toronto, the Ontario government fired five top microbiologists, saying there was too little for them to do, and that it was unlikely that a new organism would be found in Ontario. Ontario's hospitals, already strained to the breaking point, were weakened further by a government ordered search for more "savings" to address a combined deficit estimated at C$400 million before SARS wreaked havoc with staff, patients and budgets.

The Toronto Star points out that in 1994, a year before the right-wing Conservatives came to power in Ontario, the government dedicated 6% of the gross provincial product to health. That figure fell to 5% during Tory Premier Mike Harris' tenure, before rising to reach 5.5% last year under his successor and current premier, Ernie Eves. The difference between 6% and 5.5% amounts to $2.3 billion — which would have represented an increase in health-care spending of about 9% last year. That certainly would have helped to cope with the SARS outbreak.

But Harris and Eves chose tax cuts, to benefit rich individuals and corporations, over adequate health-care funding. Still the fault is not theirs alone.

The Canadian federal government's contribution to health care peaked at $8.2 billion in 1993-94, dropped to a low of $5.4 billion in 1998-99, and, despite a turn-around since then, still had not reached the 1993-94 level by the end of last year.

Roy Romanow, former New Democratic Party premier of Saskatchewan, has produced an exhaustive report on how to fix Canada's ailing medicare system. He has recommended a major infusion of funds — an additional $15 billion over three years. Ottawa's contribution, despite a highly publicised agreement with the provinces last year, still falls far short. And the amount it will give next year is pegged to the size of this year's budget surplus — which is bound to decline given the current economic slowdown.

The WHO on April 23 advised travellers to avoid Toronto for all but essential travel to the city. The warning was lifted six days later, but not before crushing the tourism industry and costing thousands of hotel and restaurant workers their jobs.

The WHO removed Toronto from its SARS watch list on July 2, and on July 5 it removed the last place still on its list, Taiwan. Toronto received the all-clear from the WHO after 20 days had passed without a new case of the respiratory illness, which has infected more than 8400 people worldwide and killed more than 800 since it first emerged in southern China late last year.

Capitalist politicians cried crocodile tears for the sick and the jobless, and then claimed credit for providing emergency aid (despite the paltry amounts involved, and despite the damage their previous health cuts had already done to the system). But those who continue to suffer, the frontline health workers, and other working people impacted by the disease and its economic consequences, may not be fooled by empty rhetoric and emptier gestures.

The real cause of the health-care crisis is the profit system, the cure for which can't be found in a test tube. A good start would be to reverse all the public health funding cuts of the past decade, to stop and reverse the privatisation of health services and facilities, and to end the tax holiday for the corporate elite which has criminally choked off funds desperately needed for public health care.

[Barry Weisleder is a member of Socialist Action in Canada.]

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