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 Global Perspective

July 30, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 18

global perspective
Mary Jo Leddy was the founding editor of Catholic New Times, an independent national Catholic newspaper and is the author of the recently released "Radical Gratitude."



Always underpaid and frequently dismissed by politicians, it is the nurses, noble men and women, who have gone into the breach on a daily basis and who have risked their own health and that of their families, in the process.

Saved by ordinary decency

By Mary Jo Leddy

Greetings from SARSville a.k.a. Toronto, Ontario.

Since the outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), people have been avoiding this city like ... well ... like the plague. Conventions and rock concerts have been cancelled; the tourism industry has collapsed.

The virus was not homegrown, of course. It was a foreign import -- just as the west Nile virus and mad cow disease came from elsewhere.

Such cross border diseases have seemed like an attack on our national health security. The fight against international disease has seemed as intense as the war against international terrorism.

Nevertheless, it is a struggle that has been conducted in an entirely different way.

Public officials have gone out of their way to avoid scapegoating any particular ethnic group. If there has been any blaming, it has been directed against government policies that gutted the public health care system and weakened its ability to respond effectively against such emergencies.

Some health professionals have gone even further, engaging in more serious self-critique, pointing out how our over reliance on antibiotics is producing whole new strains of drug resistant diseases.

They have also acknowledged that SARS is a relatively minor health crisis compared to the epidemics -- dehydration, dysentery, AIDS -- that exact a daily and devastating toll in countries that are considered less developed.

However, unlike the war against terror, the struggle against international disease is being won through the practice of openness and transparency. Public knowledge has proven to be much more effective than political evasions and lies.

In daily reports, public health officials have admitted failures and discussed uncertainties. Small victories have been acknowledged. Threats have not been overblown but neither have they been minimized.

As a result, the public has trusted the leaders in the public health care system. There has been no panic in the streets as citizens go about their daily lives, unfazed by the occasional sight of people wearing masks in the subway cars.

In the early days of SARS, the archdiocese issued directives encouraging people to continue to attend public worship but discouraging them from sharing the cup and physical contact during the exchange of peace. However, as time wore on, the kiss of peace returned in a spontaneous sort of way.

Life has gone on as normal but not exactly in the same old way. The travel ban against Toronto was lifted, but we now live in what has been called "the new normal." There are new standards of vigilance in hospitals and airports. Nurses and doctors now frequently are masked, double gloved and double gowned. Three hospitals have been designated as combat zones where the struggle against new forms of global disease will continue.

"The New Normal" also implies the realistic assessment that disease will not be controlled through border control. "The New Normal" is predicated on the assumption that only new forms of international co-operation will link the health of all peoples in a new seamless global garment of care.

In "the new normal" there are new, unknown and faceless forms of danger. Yet, this new threat of global disease has also revealed a new face of human heroism. The front line nurses have earned the deep respect of the public throughout this crisis.

Recent polls about public trust confirm a trend that has been evident for some years: nurses are the most trusted group while lawyers, journalists and politicians are the least.

Always underpaid and frequently dismissed by politicians, it is the nurses, noble men and women, who have gone into the breach on a daily basis and who have risked their own health and that of their families, in the process.

Thirty-nine people have died from SARS in Toronto and for the most part they have remained nameless. However, the last death was also the first one of a health worker, Nelia Larosa, a 51-year-old nurse from the Philippines. A steady and good natured worker, she had become infected in the course of caring for patients and she had also inadvertently passed on this infection to her son. (He has since recovered.)

The announcement of her death brought an outpouring of gratitude that has seldom been seen. Public officials, health care workers and hundreds of ordinary citizens filled the Catholic cathedral to mourn her loss and celebrate her heroism.

We have been saved by ordinary decency.

As I write this column, the dusk of a summer evening is slowly gathering. The light goes on in the bedroom of the house across the street -- as it will go off and then on again many times in the course of this night. My neighbor, a mother will tend her severely disabled son while the rest of the street will sleep on.

I think of all the parents who will awake this night as their children cry out. They will feed their children and hold them when they are afraid of the dark. I think of the nurses, checking temperatures and smoothing the sheets. And the rest of the world can sleep on. Secure.

We are sustained by such ordinary wakefulness.

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