The economic damage caused by SARS could approach $100 billion, making it one of the costliest diseases to emerge in a decade, according to Bio Economic Research Associates, Cambridge, Mass. A few examples: Air Canada had lost $20 million by early May, largely due to low passenger traffic from Asia. Toronto hoteliers estimate they're down $85 million since the outbreak. For Asian destinations, the cost has been so devastating as to make a dent in the gross national product of many countries. According to Singapore Travel Bureau, hotel occupancies in April were in the 30 percent to 40 percent range. Polly Yu of Travel Advisers Inc., a DMC that specializes in Hong Kong says, “Basically, all our conferences from May onward are postponing until next year.”

Beyond the economic damage, SARS has contributed a psychological blow to face-to-face meetings at a time when the weak national economy, war, and terrorism fears were already giving meetings a beating. “We live in a world where it's getting less attractive to move around the globe, to be part of a large crowd,” worried one meeting planner for a medical association, who asked not to be identified. Her association went ahead with a Toronto meeting in early May but the experience took its toll. “We had masks in case we needed them. We had our temperatures taken when we sneezed. We were hyper alert to problems. Everything turned out fine, but by the end, everyone's nerves were frayed.”

Scientists are optimistic that SARS can be contained and eradicated. When that happens, let's hope that along with the end to the human suffering and economic damage, there will be an end to the psychological damage wrought by SARS in terms of face-to-face meetings.