SARS in Singapore (2003) Part Two

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, Singapore 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. 

This is the second of two posts cobbled together from emails I sent out to family and friends during this time.  The strain of living under the conditions imposed to stop the spread of the illness began to take their toll on me.  I began to feel depressed.  I will admit I sought some counseling. At the same time SARS not only brought me closer to my Singaporean friends but also made me think about the consequences of SARS in a more political context.  The ways in which the Singaporean government could react quickly were both positive and negative.  And I got a little political.  When my friends and I, along with all the other international graduate students in our building, were unceremoniously notified on a weekend that we would have to vacate our apartments earlier than expected, we contacted the media.  I served as a student representative from our building in meeting with university officials and I was interviewed on television.  We still had to move out but I spent my last six weeks living with friends in an even better apartment.  When the government announced the plan to require all international students to pay a deposit before they left the country to pay for their possible quarantine upon return, my friends and I contacted our relevant embassies to express our dissatisfaction.  The government soon backtracked and it was never instituted.  The below was written before I started to work for the US government and as such represent only my thoughts at the time and not those of the USG or any department or agency of the US government. 

7. Batman mask SARS comic

Another Straits Times front page SARS comic

May 6, 2003

If you think that subject “SARS: The Show Goes On” sounds silly or tasteless I will have you know it is the title of yet another SARS-related television show launched here.  The following night you can tune into another show entitled SARS: A Courage Within.

Now not only do we have to report each day for our temperature check and receive our stamp, but if we fail to do so we are charged 50 Singaporean dollars a day.  On a Saturday afternoon – when we could not complain until Monday – an announcement was placed in our elevators notifying all students we had to vacate our apartments by June 16 because they will be doing a massive cleaning and all the incoming students will have a ten day mandatory home stay. (Sounds like a fancy name for QUARANTINE!)

8. Fight SARS together brochure

A cover of a what-to-do in the event of SARS brochure

At the bowling alley my friends and I had our temperatures checked, and once declared normal, issued with a sticker allowing us entry.

I have seen the workers at the Deli France wearing their “I am fever FREE!” stickers and the “I’m OK!” sign in the windows of the Singapore buses, to report the temps of the drivers.

Now I am, though not completely officially, a person with a Masters degree.  I thought I would feel happier but because of SARS and the government and university policies my friends are scattering to the winds all the more sooner.

Things are just not as I expected them to be now.  I had plans.  To travel to Malaysia with friends, or to hop over to Batam or Bintan (nearby Indonesian islands, one I fondly remember as the Island of a Million Mosquitoes).  But life has a funny way of throwing up the most unexpected things.  I am itching to travel.  I had planned on a glorious month long trip to China, but that is a definite no-go.  Yesterday downtown I saw three western backpackers alight from a bus near Orchard Road.  Each was wearing their very own mask.

May 22, 20039. cover mouth when sneeze comic

Though the World Health Organization has declared Singapore “safe” in the battle for SARS, the Singapore government continues its relentless political and media campaign. Though today’s Straits Times declares Singapore need not be on the defensive against allegations that it is “exporting” SARS, the government seems intent on pointing its own fingers at the importation of the disease. If ever there was a global non-traditional security issue, SARS is it.   It is literally testing the invisible boundaries between countries and the ability for countries to work together on such an issue. Singapore may have won the battle so far in containing the disease, but I do not know if it would win popularity contests for its diplomacy.  Just a few days ago the Singapore government announced that ALL foreign students in the country would have to re-apply for their student passes and come up with a S$1000 deposit when leaving the country FOR ANY DESTINATION to cover possible medical expenses upon return.  This is clear discrimination against foreign students in the country, as Singaporean students are free to go on their trips abroad without such a deposit, although they are just as likely to contract SARS as anyone else.  I have already sent my letters of protest to the US Embassy and Singapore Ministry of Education after phoning the Ministry of Health. Of course for SARS affected countries there are special measures, but Singapore seems to so easily forget that it is itself a SARS-affected country, and that viruses do not recognize invisible lines drawn on maps, nor the nationalities of its victims.

10. I'm OK SARS note on bus

It’s alright to ride this bus because this driver is OK

I find it so intriguing, this focus on SARS, equating it with war and battle.  I noted that once SARS hit Singapore the front page headers of the Straits Times simply changed from “War in Iraq” to “War on SARS.”  Every day in the paper, the front page begins with a cartoon related to SARS.

Yesterday I heard on the radio that a new television channel has been launched, the SARS channel.  I am not making it up.  They say on this channel one can “see all the SARS programs you missed.” Oh, what a teaser!  Makes you want to tune in right now.  Once I move to my new digs with friends (for just a month) I just may try to tune in, out of curiosity and my new found fascination with the media’s role in policy.  The radio and television ads plead with Singaporeans to be vigilant.  One ad proclaimed that such a war required vigilance, that one mistake, one “selfishness,” could cost the country greatly.  There is even a terribly annoying television commercial in which two “friends” badger a third friend about hygiene practices. It starts with the woman saying she is going to wash her hands, and the idiot friend asks her “why?”  She and her male partner begin a barrage of DOs and DONTs for their third friend, such as “you should always wash your hands after you use the toilet” and “always cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze” and “don’t spit on the floor” and “if you feel unwell see a doctor but don’t ‘Doctor hop.'”

Singapore’s most well-known comedian Phua Chu Kang released a song called SAR-vivor.  There is a video.  It is basically a public service announcement about washing your hands and delaying travel to SARS-affected countries packaged into a dreadfully silly rap.  (This is not a joke.  You can Google it.)

What gets me is that Singapore has been declared SARS “safe” and the regulations and admonishments just keep coming.  So far eleven people have been arrested for spitting. (One such criminal claimed “something flew into my mouth and my instinct was to spit” but the judge would have none of that and he was fined S$300).

11. dont discriminate SARS quarantine comicSingapore is doing its best to recover from the economic consequences of both the Iraq War and SARS.  The government has launched a campaign “Step Out! Singapore” to encourage Singaporeans to get out and have fun, “live life as usual,” yet while being socially responsible (i.e. not spreading SARS).   I am tired of campaigns.

As far as “living life as usual,” we all have to adapt to what is now usual.

Yesterday I found myself taking my temperature while at the copy machine at the library. Although the mandatory in-person temperature checks at the apartment complex have come to an end, we must now register our temperatures on-line every day.  One problem with this, which I pointed out to the Dean of the Office of Student Affairs, is that we have no internet connection in our housing complex.  It is perplexing that international graduate students in one of the world’s most connected countries are housed in a building with no Internet or air-conditioning…but I digress.  Therefore, we are supposed to go to the campus every day, twice a day, and log our temperatures.  Never mind that the computer labs now close at 5 PM each day and they were not open last Thursday, which was a national holiday, and last Friday I could not access the SARS daily temperature declaration website.

12. A tribute to healthcare workers window display

After the WHO declared SARS safe the fancy stores on Orchard Road used window displays to celebrate and recognize the sacrifices

So, yesterday.  I went to the school library. Before entering one must have their temperature checked and identification cards swiped.  This is reportedly so in the event of a spontaneous SARS outbreak, all persons who were present at the time can be contacted.  I submitted myself for the requisite check. I registered a temperature of 37.5, which is the cut-off point, and had to wait five minutes to have my temperature taken again.  I will note that this is Singapore, located close to the equator, with a year round average temperature of 80 degrees Fahrenheit with 80% humidity.  The entrance to the library is located on the fifth floor and I had just climbed five flights of stairs. I certainly felt warm.  My second temperature check registered at 37.6.  The young woman taking my temperature sounded panicked. “No, no way!  Sorry.  Zhe ge ren you 37.6.  Wo yinggai zuo shenme? (This person has 37.6 degrees, what should I do?)”  I thought, “Maybe I should not have walked past the hospital which looked like a scene out of the movie “Outbreak” because now I might have SARS and I cannot get into the library.”  Luckily, third time was the charm; I was released and allowed to enter the library.  Thereafter I found myself photocopying with thermometer in mouth.

But things did eventually return to normal of course.  The temperature checks and other SARS related measures slowed and then ceased.  The Singaporean government announced that the Great Singapore Sale would happen, a bit delayed but as part of normalizing.  Tourists returned.  My roommates and I moved out of the University apartments to our own place.  I did my six week internship and then left for travel – not China, but Turkey and Denmark instead. 

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