Between July 2002 and July 2003 I lived in Singapore while studying for my graduate degree at the National University. For three of those months, from 1 March to 30 May, Singaporean life was altered with the arrival of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS. During that period of time, 238 people fell ill with SARS and 33 people died. The small country reacted quickly with numerous restrictions and regulations affecting most aspects of social life. It was a strange time to be in Singapore. The following is edited from emails I sent to friends and family while living through this period. It is my take on my experience only.
April 14, 2003
If one rides the subway or buses or goes out, there is a feeling that many Singaporeans are restricting their movements around town. Subway stations on Friday or Saturday nights are almost deserted.
There has not yet been a case of the disease on my campus, and the school is doing a lot to see that it does not, although many other schools in the country have already been closed. Fewer people eat at the canteens and all the silverware and plates have been switched to disposable plastic. All the water fountains have been shut down. The university administration divided the campus into five zones. We received a Presidential circular requesting we restrict our movements between zones.
The exam schedule is also going to be adjusted so that students can undergo a health check before entering the exam rooms. Students will be sat further apart and there will be fewer students in each room. We have known our exam dates since the semester began and now we are in limbo, awaiting news as to whether our exam dates will remain the same or be pushed back.
The other day there was a bit of a scare. One of my roommates and I had just finished our last class and were feeling really good. We joined classmates for a lovely late dinner. We felt relaxed in a way we had not for weeks. While at the restaurant, we received calls that two people from our apartment complex had been taken away in ambulances, possible SARS cases. We were told not to take the elevator for fear of exposure. Previously I had not given much thought to my own safety in regards to SARS. Cases are going up in Singapore, but I spend little time in places other than my apartment and the study room at school, but this, this was where we lived. It turned out the students had food poisoning and all is well, but for an hour or so it was scary. SARS became real.
Much of the papers in Singapore are dominated by two stories: SARS and the war in Iraq. Though the war receives more notice in the paper, it is SARS that has people here jumpy. My roommate and I went to a party last evening and needed to get off at the subway station closest to the hospital where many of the SARS cases are quarantined. We were warned not to go. We went anyway. People want to avoid movie theatres, clubs, restaurants, basically most public places. I just don’t know how dangerous could it be?
Last evening on the bus my roommate and I saw an advertisement for a new weekly television program called Living With SARS. No joke. I can see it is quite a shrewd move on the part of the government to calm the fears of citizens and help businesses being affected by the illness. But something rang so….uh…Singaporean about having such a show.
I do not know how plans will turn out for the summer. I had wanted to intern for six weeks and then travel. But I had planned on traveling for a month in China but with SARS that seems very unlikely. Right now even people who travel to Singapore are quarantined for ten days when they go back to their countries. It is hard to say how long these measures will be in place. Two more patients with SARS died yesterday in Singapore. It is not quite an epidemic, but it is very serious.
April 28, 2003
There are already more precautions and more new things to report about SARS in Singapore. I am not sure what to make of it, but the paranoia is growing. I am glad I do not have a television as I might be locked up in my apartment afraid to go out.
Last night I had the opportunity to watch television for about an hour on a friend’s computer, and we tuned in just in time to catch the beginning of the new show Living With SARS. We promptly changed the channel. We know what living with SARS is like. All over the campus are signs about SARS; all the water fountains are shut down for “maintenance,” and every time one signs into the campus intranet via Outlook we get a dose of SARS with notifications telling us to wash our hands, not to hang out with any SARS affected people, not to do this and not to do that. Today there was a list of places that if anyone has visited in the past few weeks one was supposed to monitor their fever every two hours.
By email we also received an exam update, which listed the number of people who went through the exams and how many had to go to the isolation room and how many went to the hospital. I know it is supposed to make us feel better, but in reality, I am not all that sure it does.
Beginning tomorrow there will be daily checks at the dormitory apartment building where I live. We have been issued thermometers. Every morning the residents of our complex, all 350+ of us, are supposed to line up to have our temperatures taken. Should we be “cleared” we will receive a stamp – HEALTH SCREENING NUS – on our wrists, which is good for the whole day. The following day we go through the whole thing again. This will go on every day until the end of May when the policy will be reviewed. And the stamp colors are changed each day so that we cannot cheat and use the stamp from the day before. (I want my next one on my forehead!) Those who fail to turn up for these checks face disciplinary action.
A few days ago I was a bit hungry and wanted something different than the usual fare, and it being a Sunday the school canteens were closed. A friend drove me to the National University Hospital, which has a Deli France. The scene which met me as I stepped out of the car and up to the entrance was straight out of some movie. The people were dressed all in plastic with hats and gloves and face masks. I explained I just wanted to get a sandwich and they said I just needed to go through this small procedure before I could enter the hospital. I was given a clipboard with a form to fill out (have you been to Hong Kong, Hanoi, Toronto? In the past few weeks have you been around a SARS victim?), and then they took my temperature, issued me a sticker badge only for the Food Court and ATM and my very own mask. Then properly masked I headed off to get my sandwich. I was not so nervous until I saw those hospital workers decked out like that. I will not be getting any more sandwiches from the hospital for some time to come. It felt very odd because just a week before the SARS outbreak my best friends and I had enjoyed a lovely lunch there.
The other day I stepped into the university bookstore and already there were two books on sale about SARS. I went to our local supermarket yesterday and there were very few fruits and almost no veggies. I didn’t make the connection until a roommate reminded me that the Pasir Panjang market closed down because a worker there came down with SARS. The market, a major supplier of produce in Singapore was shut down. 7-11 is selling SARS kits for S$19.90 which includes masks, gloves, vitamins, and related items.
A few quarantined individuals broke their quarantine so now things are even more stringent. In a special congressional session the government is going to pass a law that allows people who break quarantine to be fined. Quarantined individuals who refuse to answer their phones will have to wear electronic tracking bands.
The final thing is this screening at Changi airport and at the causeways connecting Singapore and Malaysia. Now they have infrared temp screening for all passengers/arrivals/departures in Singapore. The authorities are looking into putting these machines in other places.
These are certainly strange times in Singapore.