As the first North American case of the Wuhan coronavirus was identified in Washington state Tuesday, infectious disease researchers and veterans of the 2003 Toronto SARS outbreak said the social and economic fallout would depend largely on how well public officials can communicate and counter unnecessary panic.
Chinese officials confirmed Tuesday that the outbreak had taken six lives and could spread between humans, prompting memories of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) — an outbreak that killed nearly 800 people worldwide in 2002-03.
The Canadian experience with SARS resulted in 44 deaths over four months.
“This is not SARS and right now we are only talking about the potential of a local outbreak,” said Roger Keil, a professor at York University who has studied the economic, social and political impact of infectious diseases. “But people are worried and people are reacting. Obviously you don’t die from panic, but it is a law to itself. It has its own dynamic and it will impact people’s decisions to travel for instance.”
Unlike with SARS, public officials grappling with the coronavirus will have to contend with a population that is far more closely connected through social media networks, Keil added.
“People today create their own private panic on Twitter,” he said. “So the impact of all of this will depend on how well it is communicated and handled in the first instance.”
With the virus spreading just ahead of the Chinese New Year holiday, the S&P 1500 airlines index fell 2.6 per cent. Hotel and casino operators Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Wynn Resorts Ltd., both of which have large operations in China, dropped about four per cent.
It is too early to see any real impact of the illness on the Canadian economy or individual businesses, said Doug Porter, chief economist for BMO Financial Group.
Moreover, measuring the economic effect of infectious diseases isn’t straightforward. The Bank of Canada estimated that SARS cut growth by 0.6 per cent in the second quarter of 2003, with most of the damage landing on the tourism sector, particularly on Toronto, after the World Health Organization issued a travel advisory against travelling to the city.
“However, many estimates suggested that the economy recovered relatively quickly from the shocks, and that the overall net growth impact for the full year was modest, perhaps on the order of -0.1 per cent for SARS,” said Porter.
Employees are still the ones that drive profit and when they aren’t there profit suffers
Amin Mawani, professor, York University
Restaurants, airlines and travel-related businesses were among the businesses hardest hit as patrons and employees fearing infection stayed home. Indeed, the most significant impact of the illness on the Canadian economy came through employee absenteeism, said Amin Mawani, a professor in the Health Industry Management Program at York University.
“Employees are still the ones that drive profit and when they aren’t there profit suffers,” he said. “That said, coronavirus is nowhere near that scale right now.”
With the experience of SARS behind them, Canadian officials are expected to be better prepared to detect and isolate confirmed cases of the illness. And while social networks may have the ability to construct panic more quickly, “we certainly also have the ability to transmit accurate information much more quickly than we did,” said Kamran Khan, an infectious disease physician at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and founder and CEO of BlueDot, an infectious disease surveillance company.
“We are now often aware of the threat before it shows up in hospitals, so we are more prepared,” said Khan, whose company advises the federal government and private businesses. “There will still be challenges but timely communication of information is so important.”
The newly identified coronavirus — it causes respiratory pneumonia and has been compared to SARS by health officials — originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan before spreading to Beijing and Shanghai.
South Korea detected its first case over the weekend, following the spread of the virus to Japan and Thailand last week. A 30-year-old traveller in Seattle was confirmed as the first U.S. case Tuesday.
The World Health Organization, which will meet Wednesday to discuss whether this is an outbreak, said last week that it expected cases to be identified in other countries.
There have been no confirmed cases in Canada and health officials have stepped up public awareness and screening at hospitals and airports.
Financial Post, with files from wire services