Long list of event cancellations due to COVID-19 a 'panicdemic,' health expert says

As mass gatherings are cancelled in Toronto and around the globe, at least one local health expert says he's worried about the long term consequences of a "panic-demic."

St. Patrick's Day Parade joins a long list of event cancellations in Toronto

More than 120 groups, including marching bands and floats, plus this leprechaun, took part in the annual parade last year. (John Sandeman/CBC)

The list of events in the city falling victim to COVID-19 continues to grow in what one health expert calls a "panicdemic."

Along with Maple Leafs and Raptors games, conferences and festivals, one of the biggest attractions to be cancelled is the St. Patrick's Day Parade, which was to wind its way through downtown Toronto this Saturday.

"People are scared right now," said Shaun Ruddy, chair of the St Patrick's Parade Society of Toronto.

"We were looking around at the different things in the city and what was being cancelled around us. And you know it doesn't make sense holding a parade when everybody else is quarantining and shutting down and isolating," he said. 

"And so it just wasn't prudent on our part to be hosting a parade in the middle of a shutdown."

'It's utter chaos'

But some health experts have suggested scuttling the St. Patrick's Day parade may be unnecessary, because it's an outdoor event.

Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, an infectious disease specialist at the University Health Network, says he's as concerned about the spread of fear and panic as he is about the spread of the virus. 

"The other epidemic, besides the pandemic, is what I call the 'panicdemic,'" said the professor of medicine at the University of Toronto.

"In terms of having people completely paralyzed with fear, completely paralyzed in terms of an understanding of how to protect themselves, what to do, how to communicate with each other, it's utter chaos."

Sharkawy says the federal government has a risk assessment checklist for mass gatherings occurring in a range of places — public and private, indoor and outdoor. And he's concerned about the long-term implications that the mass cancellation of public events pretty much around the world will have on people's psyches.

Dr. Abdu Sharkawy calls the cancellations in response to the coronavirus outbreak a 'panic-demic,' which could have long-term implications. (supplied)

"What's this going to mean for social isolation for mental health issues for people that already suffer from very profound anxiety and mood disorders? This can't be helpful," he said.

"We need a prudent strategy that I think meets the middle ground between being cautious and responsible without having our society and our way of life completely grinding to a halt."

Meantime, Ruddy says Toronto is late to the parade of cancellations so far. Montreal's St. Patrick's Day parade, Canada's oldest, has been called off. Chicago has cancelled its parade and New York City postponed its 258-year-old tradition.

Even Ireland's parade in Dublin, one of the country's biggest tourist events, will not be held on March 17.

This year's parade is just the latest cancellation for the city, which has already seen sports events and concerts called off.

Shaun Ruddy, chair of the St Patrick's Parade Society of Toronto, says the volunteer run organization didn't want to take any chances and followed the lead of New York City, Chicago and Montreal in cancelling or postponing the parade. (supplied)

Toronto's Canadian Screen Week activities are cancelled, the city's Collision tech conference slated for the Enercare Centre is now an online-only event, even the Greater Toronto Hockey League's players banquets have fallen victim to fears that mass gatherings in enclosed places could mean transmission of COVID-19.

Also, the board of directors for TO Live, which runs the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, and Toronto Centre for the Arts, will hold a special meeting Friday to decide whether or not to go ahead with its live theatre season as scheduled.

Ruddy says the community has been supportive of the decision to cancel the St. Patrick's parade.

"This [pandemic] is not getting better, it's getting worse by the sound of it," he said. "There's been no blow back from anybody at all."

About the Author

Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with more than two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for CBC Toronto on television, radio and online. He is also a National Reporter for The World This Weekend on Radio One. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.


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