By Denise Paglinawan and Moira Warburton
TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada has identified only three cases of the new coronavirus so far, but there are fears a more serious outbreak could stoke anti-Asian sentiment in scenes reminiscent of the SARS epidemic that killed dozens in the Toronto area in the early 2000s.
More than 9,000 people signed a petition urging one of the area's school boards to keep children whose family members recently returned from China out of classrooms, and some businesses in Toronto's Chinatown are already recording a slowdown.
On Tuesday, authorities in British Columbia reported Canada's third case of the novel coronavirus in Vancouver. The first two to contract the virus in Canada - a husband and wife - live in Toronto. All three recently returned from Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak.
In a press conference on Wednesday, Toronto Mayor John Tory pushed back hard against the suggestion that Chinese-Canadian businesses should be avoided, or individuals travelling from China should be quarantined, calling it "entirely inconsistent" with the advice of healthcare professionals.
"That kind of stigmatization is wrong," Tory said, adding that it "could lead to a situation where we are less safe because it spreads misinformation."
SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, killed 44 people in the Toronto area, causing widespread fear and making Canada the only country outside Asia to report deaths from that virus in 2002-2003. So far the new coronavirus has killed more than 100 people in China.
"This is exactly what happened during SARS," Amy Go, interim national president of the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice, told Reuters in reference to the school board petition.
"We really, really have to check that we are not being overwhelmed by irrational fear and irrational panic," she said.
The York Region School Board responded to the petition by saying it understood "that students and their families are feeling some anxiety," but cautioned that anyone can contract and transmit the virus.
The situation "can regrettably give rise to discrimination based on perceptions, stereotypes and hate," the board said.
Health Minister Patty Hajdu on Tuesday said there was a risk Chinese Canadians could feel "somewhat targeted" because of the origin of the virus, and that it could hurt their businesses if people shun them out of fear.
But the Asian community is also among the most concerned about the virus, said Polly Chow, a Chinese-Canadian mother from Toronto.
She said she agreed with the board petition, and with her son's private school "emergency order" that children be self-quarantined for 15 days if their families had travelled where there were confirmed cases.
Chow described an atmosphere of fear and protectiveness among parents, and said many students in her son's class did not attend school on Monday.
"All the kids who didn't attend were all the Asian kids," she told Reuters. "When you're Asian, you get exposed to news through the Asian media. You see more graphically what's happening in China, so that increases the fear."
The South Asian and Chinese communities are the two largest visible minorities in Canada, and some 1.8 million people, or just under 5% of the country's total population, are of Chinese descent.
Tonny Louie, chair of Toronto Chinatown Business Improvement Area, said business activity had already slowed due to concern over the virus, and scenes like the one Tuesday at Toronto's Chongqing Liuyishou Hot Pot, where all the employees wore surgical masks meant to protect them from contagion, do not help.
"The numbers are down," Louie said. "There's not that many people in the street."
(Reporting by Denise Paglinawan and Moira Warburton in Toronto; additional reporting by Kelsey Johnson in Ottawa and Tessa Vikander in Vancouver; Writing by Steve Scherer; Editing by Tom Brown and Marguerita Choy)