The Curse of the Fearful SARS of 2003

The current outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), which has no known cure for victims afflicted by it, has brought widespread panic to Singaporeans and has drastically altered the patterns of their daily life while it lasted.

The famous saying of President FD Roosevelt that “the only thing to fear is fear itself” aptly encapsulates the present state of mind of a large cross-section of the Singapore public and those in the worst-hit areas of Guangdong and Hong Kong. Sars later reached Canada and many people died from it. It was spread there through those who returned from China and Hong Kong.

How did this hitherto non-existent decease impinge on the collective psyche of Singaporeans and how do they cope with this much dreaded communicable decease spreading in Singapore.

It is, I believe, fair to say that it has brought to light both the nobler and unedifying sides of the Singaporean character. First, the well-deserved accolades. Our valiant and caring healthcare givers, both in the public and private sectors, have borne the brunt of it, especially during the earlier crucial stage in order to prevent its further spread,  and not a few among them had become victims themselves and some are still fighting for their lives.

Despite being exposed to  the much higher risks of contamination than others, they have continued to put their own safety aside and that of their own families too, and have discharged their professional responsibilities to the fullest.

On the unedifying side, numerous fellow Singaporeans have treated the healthcare professionals like pariahs. Our nurses, who always wear their uniforms in public with pride, had to endure taunts and hostile stares. Some even avoided them like plagues. There are other overt discriminatory treatments meted out to these medical personnel, which are  irrational and inexcusable.

Fortunately, these unthinking Singaporeans are in the minority. Nonetheless their attitudes and behaviour have damaged the international reputation of the nation. At the other extreme, a large number of Singaporeans have almost totally abstained form social activities with the coming of Sars.

The earlier repeated use of the term “super infector” by the health authorities and the media to emphasise the transmission of this disease by one Singaporean woman who caught it in Hong Kong and spread it to numerous people here was most unfortunate and showed the lack of sensitivity to the feelings of this hapless victim and her family, especially when she was an involuntary agent in such transmission process and was struggling desperately to survive during the early critical stage.

The transmission cycle could have been explained in a more sympathetic way which would still have got the message  across to the public, and yet not stigmatise this unfortunate victim who, perforce, would have to live with this traumatic experience permanently.

This outbreak also highlights a trait of Singaporeans which is that we tend to overreact in a crisis situation, instead of remaining calm and act rationally. This was abundantly self-evident during the several national crises which our country underwent during the past decades.

Hopefully, this is a weakness of the older generation of Singaporeans, and that it would not be passed on to the younger  and better educated Singaporeans and the generations to come.

We should all do some soul-searching and learn from the object lessons in the current crisis. By so doing, it would enable us to tackle future national crises with greater success and equanimity.

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Post Sars Update

Singapore became entirely Sars free about three months after it started by end of May of 2003.

The Sars experience has enabled our hospitals and health authorities to be much better prepared to face future  health crises whether they originate in Singapore or, more likely in other countries and to take effective measures to prevent their being spread here or from reaching our shores. The public too became better prepared, through a series of government initiated public educational talks and a government booklet distributed free to all households on the dos and don’ts in future health and other national crises. The public organisations and the media too played their part in this regard. The airport staff also played an important role, and will continue to do so in any future such crises, in screening incoming passengers from affected countries and for those with temperatures or showed signs of flu.

A few years later a couple of health crises did occur and everyone in Singapore had become better prepared to face these should they reach our shores. I refer to the bird flu which happened elsewhere and resulting in the loss of many lives there, but never spread to Singapore, despite millions of foreign visitors and tourists coming to Singapore every year.

More recently the deadly Mers outbreak, which started in the Middle East and later spread to South Korea, resulting in many loss of lives and turmoil over several months there before the country was set free from it. This too never reached Singapore fortunately, due to the vigilance of the Singapore authorities.

Hong Kong SARS Memorial (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Hong Kong SARS Memorial (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

This article was first published in the bilingual page of Singapore’s national newspaper Lianhe Zaobao on 12 April 2003.

Lam Pin Foo

2 thoughts on “The Curse of the Fearful SARS of 2003

  1. Very interesting write-up Mr Lam – and as usual, I love to read your words as they are always thought provoking and brings back memories…
    The SARS period has been a defining period for Singapore. Many lives lost, sadly many were medical practitioners who were doing their job.
    If I recall correctly it was the late Dy Minister of Health Dr Balaji visited the hospitals, BUT not the Minister of Health – I guess that’s politics – “pawns go first” .
    Yes lessons learnt during SARS were not immediately implemented during MERS until the situation was bad in Korea.
    Look at our airports – we are probably one of the major airports where incoming & outgoing passengers can ‘mix & interact’ – ( the kopi shop joke is so that money can be laundered via Singapore.. haha.).
    The Government handled the situation as well as they could at that point. Sadly, the follow through is not obvious.
    I also fully agree with you that such terms like ‘super infector” should have never been used.
    Our Doctors & Nurses and ALL Hospital Staff should always be respected.

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