Press Releases

2003 Releases

Survey Finds SARS Having a Significant Psychological, Economic Impact On Lives of Toronto Residents

For immediate release:  June 16, 2003

Boston, MA—A new study by the Harvard School of Public Health Project on the Public and Biological Security and Health Canada (the federal department of health in Canada) comparing the impact of SARS in Toronto to the United States finds that 42 percent of residents of Toronto are concerned that they or someone in their immediate family may get sick from SARS during the next 12 months. This compares to 26 percent of Americans being concerned about SARS and 17 percent believing they or a family member were likely to contract the disease. 

Although levels of concern are high, residents of Toronto believed they or a family member were more likely to contract West Nile virus (37 percent) in the next 12 months than to contract SARS (22 percent). 

The Toronto metropolitan area has 4.36 million residents[i] and is the largest metropolitan area outside of Asia to have been impacted by SARS.  To date, Toronto has had most of Canada’s confirmed cases of SARS[ii] (238 cases nationwide), 15,000 residents in quarantine, and 32 deaths from the disease[iii]. Most of the SARS cases have been related to in-hospital exposure to the virus.

Toronto-area residents were taking a number of precautions against SARS, such as using disinfectant at home or at work (47 percent), consulting a web site for information about protecting against SARS (27 percent), carrying something to clean objects that may have come into contact with someone who had SARS (22 percent), avoiding people who they thought may have recently traveled to Asia (17 percent), talking with their doctor about health issues related to SARS (19 percent), and buying a face mask (14 percent)

In addition, a number of Toronto-area residents were taking precautions that could have a negative impact on the region’s economy. About one in five (19 percent) reported avoiding Asian restaurants and stores, and 16 percent said they were avoiding public places because of SARS. One in 10 Toronto residents who had traveled outside the country in the past 12 months reported avoiding international air travel recently. Tourism is also likely to have been affected by the belief of about one-third (35 percent) of Americans that SARS has made it unsafe to travel to Canada.

In the U.S., where there have been 70 cases of SARS and no deaths[iv], the public was less likely than residents of Toronto to report taking precautions against SARS.  For example, 9 percent reported avoiding Asian restaurants or stores, and 7 percent said they were avoiding public events.  Among those who had traveled outside the United States in the past 12 months, 9 percent reported avoiding international air travel recently.

“The implication of the SARS experience in Toronto for the U.S. is that if there were an epidemic of SARS in the U.S. that could not be contained quickly, it would have a significant economic impact on any major city where cases occurred,” said Robert Blendon, Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Also, people’s level of worry is higher than their assessment of their own risk. As we have seen in Toronto, as the number of cases of SARS increases, the proportion of people who are concerned grows substantially, even though many of those concerned know that their risk of contracting the disease remains low.”

Toronto residents knew that quarantine was necessary to keep SARS from spreading (96 percent) and said they would comply with a quarantine order if they were exposed to someone who had SARS (97 percent).  Almost one-in-four residents of Toronto (22 percent) had a friend or a family member who was quarantined due to SARS exposure.  Although the overwhelming majority support quarantine, one-quarter of those who had either been quarantined themselves (2 percent) or had a friend or family member quarantined (22 percent) said that being quarantined was a major problem.  When asked about specific problems relating to quarantine, the top two “major” problems were emotional difficulties relating to the confinement (11 percent) and not getting paid because they had to miss work (10 percent).

“It is a positive sign that three-quarters of Toronto residents who had experience with quarantine did not find it to be a major problem,” said Blendon. “We also see that people in Toronto have become very knowledgeable about the disease, demonstrating the effectiveness of public health and media communication.”

For the complete survey and power point slides see:


This study was designed and analyzed by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and Health Canada.  The project director is Robert J. Blendon of the Harvard School of Public Health. The research team also includes Catherine M. DesRoches, John M. Benson, Kathleen Weldon and Liz Raleigh of the Harvard School of Public Health and Jane Hazel of Health Canada.  Fieldwork was conducted via telephone by GPC Research from June 5 – 6, 2003.  The survey was conducted with a sample of 501 Canadian age 18 and older, living in the Toronto metropolitan area. The margin of error for this survey is +/- 4 percentage points.  The US survey was conducted by ICR/International Communications Research between May 2 – 6, 2003, with a nationally representative sample of 1025 adults age 18 and over.  The margin of error for this survey is +/- 3 percentage points.

[i] Canadian Census, 2001,
[ii] Foreman, William, “Taiwan Points SARS Finger at Toronto,” The Toronto Star, June 11, 2003.
[iii] Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care,; Boyle, Theresa.  “Premier Agrees to SARS Inquiry” The Toronto Star, June 11, 2003. 
[iv] World Health Organization, June 11, 2003,

For further information, please contact:

Robin Herman
Office of Communications
Harvard School of Public Health
677 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
Phone: 617-432-4752