CANADA: Neoliberalism and SARS make Toronto sick



TORONTO — The recent outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) here are shining a harsh light on the inadequacies and outright failures of neoliberal public health policies and practices. It also shows clearly the extent to which neoliberal governments prioritise business security above the health and social security of workers.

Public health officials first received warnings of SARS in early February and a full-blown crisis was emerging by March. By late April, Ontario's Tory premier Ernie Eves had not even recalled the legislature, which had been on hiatus since Christmas, to devise a plan for dealing with the crisis.

For weeks, the Tory plan appeared to consist of little more than suggestions to "wash your hands". Governments only responded, and even then largely in terms of public relations, after the embarrassment and threat of losses for tourist industry owners of the World Health Organisation's warning to travellers to avoid Toronto.

SARS, like the Walkerton tragedy before it, which saw several people die and hundreds become sick after privatisation and cuts to water inspection services contributed to e-coli contamination of the town's drinking water, has revealed the damage done to the health care system in Ontario by the Tories.

The Tories' privatisation of front-line health services played a major part in the province's inability to cope with the SARS outbreak. Likewise, cuts to health care put systems under greater strain (resulting in delays for people requiring other treatment). Clearly, public health requires a large increase in resources.

The problems caused by the lack of public health resources were compounded by the failure of any level of government to compensate workers who had to go under quarantine and the failure to compensate anyone who was not quarantined but thought they had symptoms and should stay home from work.

Similarly, nothing was forthcoming to assist tenants facing eviction or unable to make utilities payments due to SARS-related layoffs or work cutbacks. That this failure played a part in the spread of SARS in Toronto, and in the spread of panic over SARS, was highlighted when an infected nurse from Mount Sinai Hospital took public transport to work on April 14 and 15 because she could not afford to lose pay.

In contrast, the government compensated the entertainment magnates and hotel companies, through subsidies, did not extend to workers in the food, entertainment and hotel industries affected by layoffs or lost hours. As late as May 27, Hotel Employees, Restaurant Employees (HERE) Local 75 was still requesting, unsuccessfully, meetings with federal industry minister Allan Rock and human resources minister Jane Stewart.

For its part, the federal Liberal government offered "symbolic support", such as holding a cabinet meeting at an exclusive Toronto hotel, to and from which they were chauffeured in great haste. Other responses were little more than gimmicks too, including the proposal to pay the Rolling Stones C$10 million in public money to put on a "free" concert. Ironically, this was the same amount as the total federal relief package to compensate laid-off and quarantined workers and affected small businesses.

Even worse, the province's rush to proclaim the crisis over following the WTO advisory seems to have played a major part in a renewed outbreak at the end of May. During the second outbreak, more than 7000 people have been quarantined, but compensation packages have still not been made available by any level of government for those affected.

Anger over the Tories' handling of the outbreak may play a part in the provincial elections later this year. Eves cancelled his election announcement, which had been planned for the week in which the second outbreak occurred, lest the election be become a referendum on Tory health care policies.

Still, anger over the Tories' bungling of the SARS crisis is running high, extending into their support base among suburban consumers in the regions surrounding Toronto.

From Green Left Weekly, June 18, 2003.
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