Road to Congress: Globalization and the spread of SARS

From May 27 to June 3, York University will host over 8,000 delegates to the 75th Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences (formerly the Learneds). In the run-up to Congress, one of the biggest academic events ever held at York (see YFile Feb. 2), YFile is profiling researchers whose focus is in the humanities and social sciences. Today, the spotlight is on researchers examining SARS within the context of Toronto as a global city. The researchers are two professors in the Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES): Harris Ali, principal investigator, and Roger Keil, co-investigator.

Two environmental researchers from somewhat disparate specialties are enthusiastically tackling a study on infectious diseases such as SARS, and their enthusiasm about the study is itself catching.

“I think the genius of our collaboration is in the fact that we come from such different research fields,” says FES Professor Roger Keil. “I specialize in the politics of large cities around the world; Harris Ali specializes in world health issues.”

Whatever angle Keil and Ali usually take in their research, their latest project is a joint study aimed at examining multi-faceted issues relating to cities and the transmission of SARS, a disease which not only caused deaths, but also spread fear throughout the city and the world and even led to racism.

Right: Roger Keil

Most of Keil’s work in the past has focused on global cities, such as Frankfurt, Los Angeles and Toronto. Ali’s research has mainly been on what he terms “disaster incubation” — how invisible social and ecological processes come together to create a disaster, such as the recent waterborne disease outbreak in Walkerton, Ontario.

“It occurred to us to look at a map of the spread of infectious diseases such as SARS through the global cities network I’d been studying,” says Keil. “Then we made a proposal to link research on global cities with the emergence of infectious diseases. Researchers have looked at other interactions in global cities, but not infectious diseases, and not from a social perspective as opposed to a medical one.”

Left: Harris Ali

In recent years, according to Keil, there has been an upsurge of business-related travel by transnational corporations to and from major urban centres — “global capitalism” — with a lot of the travel stemming from cities that have large immigrant populations. Many immigrants have little education or have qualifications that are not recognized in Canada, end up in low-paying jobs and are poor, he says.

Ali explains further, “Cosmopolitan cities like Toronto attract diaspora communities, and some ethnic groups end up in hospital jobs, for instance, at the low end of the hierarchy. Because of where they work, they are more likely to be exposed to viruses such as SARS. People from many ethnic groups have strong ties to their relatives in other global cities, and often travel back and forth to weddings and funerals. So, if they have been exposed to viruses like SARS, there is a chance the virus will spread to other global cities.

“Unfortunately, this did happen when a citizen arrived back in Toronto from Hong Kong, carrying the SARS virus. Some Torontonians began giving suspicious looks to Asian people in the streets and leaving offensive voice messages at Chinese businesses.”

Ali is organizing students to investigate the racism-tinged “scapegoating” aspect of SARS in Toronto. The students, who can speak Cantonese, will talk to members of the Chinese community during April to see what their experiences were during the 2003 SARS crisis in the city.

Right: The coronavirus that causes SARS

Keil is zeroing in on health governance, questioning the infectious disease reporting system currently in place. “Health governance isn’t just the local hospitals reporting to a provincial board who reports to Ottawa and then to other global cities. At the top is the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva. Toronto and Hong Kong didn’t communicate directly during the SARS crisis, because information had to be funneled through their respective national governments and the WHO.

“We are making the case that Toronto and other global cities should consider new ways of communicating about infectious diseases. We need to look at the reality of people moving between large cities, rather than between nation states,” explains Keil.

For example, Keil says it may make sense for the Toronto public health authorities to communicate with their counterparts in other urban centres “when there is a crisis – or over all big health issues.”

Ali and Keil hope for funding to expand their project to include research into the possible bird flu pandemic. “Our knowledge can help in the planning and management of this virus when it transforms itself and affects humans on a large scale, as it will. Canadians need to be prepared,” says Keil.

“On a practical level,” says Ali, “we want to find ways to respond to public health threats. Often people don’t look at the social and political context of having an infectious disease, only the disease itself and exposure to it.”

Ali and Keil’s initiative, which began in 2004, is funded by the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada.

This article was written by former YFile editor Cathy Carlyle, now a freelance writer and contributor to YFile.