SARS-quarantined worse off in Toronto than in China

More people were quarantined in Toronto during the 2003 SARS outbreak – and with less regard to their rights – than in either Hong Kong or Shanghai, the other two most affected cities, according to research by York University Professor Lesley Jacobs. From 20,000 to 30,000 people were quarantined in Toronto, versus about 1,200 people in Hong Kong.

“Quarantine infringes on civil and political rights recognized in international law and in the legal systems of most constitutional democracies,” says Jacobs, who is a professor in York’s Law & Society Program in the Division of Social Science, Faculty of Arts. Jacobs is an expert on human rights and legal regulations. “My research indicates that senior public health officials in Toronto did far less than their Chinese counterparts to accommodate the rights or concerns of front-line hospital workers, quarantined individuals or SARS patients and their families.”

In Toronto, Jacobs also found that concerns over rights had little impact on public health policy, but considerably shaped what was done in Shanghai and especially Hong Kong. He says his findings are all the more surprising because it is widely believed that Canada is much more of a rights-centred society than China or its territories.

“Senior officials in Hong Kong built measures into their decision-making process that were attentive to the perceived needs and rights of physicians and nurses,” Jacobs observes. “Also, public health authorities implemented measures that promoted public health goals but sought to reduce infringements on individual rights – with the result that far fewer people were quarantined in Hong Kong.”

Right: Toronto’s SARS screening in effect

Jacobs notes that, unlike Toronto, “the decisions of the Hong Kong Hospital Authority were also surprisingly attentive to the rights of hospital workers. Furnished and provisioned apartments were provided, with mobile and video phone access to facilitate family contact. Compensation packages were provided uniformly and openly.”

After the crisis had ended in Toronto, notes Jacobs, the provincial government did announce the SARS Compassionate Assistance Program. This program was designed to provide a compensation allowance for non-health workers who had missed work and were not paid, but it was only $10 million – compared with more than $1 billion expended on health care workers and physicians. There is little evidence, states Jacobs, that this “come-and-get-it” assistance was either widely publicized or accessed.

Jacobs has presented his findings to academic audiences in British Columbia, Ontario, Georgia and New York State. He is the Chair of the Canada Team of a $2.4-million SSHRC/MRCI grant on human rights and international trade disputes in Canada, China and Japan, which focuses on differences in legal consciousness and cross-cultural adaptation.