Memories of a Virus

I can’t help but think about Toronto in 2003. I had just started working with a well-respected performing arts film company in the autumn of 2002 after having been laid off from my previous job after the bottom fell out of their financing for an ambitious Grimm Brothers-based children’s TV series. Some context is important here. 9/11 had only happened a year before my lay-off. The effect of 9/11 was huge on the film and TV industry. One large factor was advertisers: they weren’t producing new ads — I don’t exactly understand the psychology behind this though I gather many were waiting for what the Bush Jr. administration would do as a response to the attacks. But, as I did start my career working in TV commercials, I can tell you that those 30 second spots pump tonnes of money (and jobs) into many parts of the economy. So, no new ads, no ad money to broadcasters, thus no budgets from broadcasters for new productions, which meant industry jobs were scarce.

Then came SARS.

I wrote about this for the Torontoist ten years after the fact, albeit in a more generally-geared way (not focused on the film industry). It may not be the definitive SARS essay, however it’s topical both as an overview of the what and how, and also as a point of comparison to what we are facing today, nearly 20 years later, in the early days of the coronavirus COVID-19 as it spreads its way across the planet.

As I wrote then, we were caught flat-footed as a result of economic downsizing (or to use more current parlance, austerity measures). And if 9/11 took the legs out of the film and TV production in Toronto, SARS was a squarely landed sucker punch. Even though the job I’d just landed paid much less than my previous one (don’t get me started), I had to be thankful because I ended up avoiding an industry-wide cull that left all but the best (or well-connected) in the industry. For a simplistic explainer, Hollywood movies shoot here in order to take advantage of rebates on labour costs, and thus undergird the infrastructure that the native Canadian industry depends on for their productions. They didn’t want to cross the border for risk of any cast or crew getting ill. Even beyond North America we were affected: the company who hired me was about to start pre-production on a feature shooting in southeast Asia — then like now a hot zone of the virus — when the plug got pulled for insurance reasons.

Even though we pulled ourselves out of it, it got bleak. It felt like Toronto was put in a sick ward and someone wrapped it in protective plastic from the rest of the world.

A lot has changed since then. Canada learned its tragic lessons — losing 44 lives and having a hole drilled through the economy will do that. Our medical infrastructure is now among the best prepared in the world. It’s a strange and unsettling deja vu to see other First World countries who weren’t affected by SARS struggling to stave off infection. This includes, coincidentally enough, film productions (as it stands, Toronto has become and remains a boomtown, especially since Netflix has invested in studio space). I am very thankful for the lack of social media (as we know it now) back in 2003. What I witnessed then was only a precursor to the more virulent online racism, xenophobia, and paranoia that we are seeing today.

I wanted to write that Torontoist essay in 2013 because it seemed nobody wanted to acknowledge what happened in 2003 — that somehow, maybe thanks to “SARSstock“, we could wash ourselves of it. The body count. The World Health Organization’s travel advisory. The second SARS wave that hit later that year. The economic downloading that made us so vulnerable.

I’m writing this now because I work in the middle of Chinatown, which has been unfairly punished by the association with COVID-19. Restaurants and businesses are suffering for no reason other than the public’s ignorance. I realize it’s early days for COVID-19, which has the potential of wreaking great havoc. My hope is that, where applicable, medical facilities are upgraded to prevent the spread of infection, people use common sense when travelling and — of personal importance — that populist governments do not use this as an excuse for clamping down on democratic freedoms (i.e. public assembly, elections). We shall see.


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