2003 will always be remembered as the year Sars swept Singapore. On 22 March 2003, TTSH and CDC were made the designated facilities for isolating and treating suspected and probable SARS cases. It has been more than a decade since the outbreak, which cast a pall on Singapore’s economy and left numerous families broken, and completely taken by surprise.

Attendees at a dialogue session between the then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, Cabinet members, and grassroots leaders on SARS at the Kallang Theatre in 2003.

Veteran newspaper editor Bertha Henson remembers the year 2003 all too clearly – in particular, one day when a journalist under her charge remarked she was feeling “hot”. It probably wouldn’t have been a big deal any other day, but the remark made Ms Henson’s blood run cold.

It was March that year, before anyone in the newsroom had an inkling that Sars was as contagious and deadly as it was. Journalists and photographers had been staking out Tan Tock Seng Hospital round the clock, trying their best to find out more about the strange malady that had afflicted so many Singaporeans in a relatively short period.

As it turned out, the Sars outbreak had actually been set off by a young woman who had been infected with the virus while holidaying in Hong Kong. After returning to Singapore, the woman sparked a series of transmissions, which eventually resulted in 238 people in Singapore being infected with the virus, and 33 dying from it.

The English version of a public poster during the SARS period: Knowing SARS To Fight It Together

Ms Henson recalled:

“The (Singapore Press Holdings) management panicked and ordered the journalists involved to work from home. It had dawned on them that newspaper operations would be shut down by the State should just one journalist be infected with Sars.”

Journalists in the newsroom, she recalled, worked nearly elbow-to-elbow, and would mingle with colleagues in the office canteen in the company’s Toa Payoh office building. A transmission event at SPH could have brought production of the company’s newspapers to a screeching halt – which would have been a disaster at a time information was badly needed by the general public.

Another poster during the SARS period: Keep Cool – Guard Against SARS

Thankfully, despite working tirelessly on Sars coverage, there were no infections in the newsroom. The days and nights went by in a flurry of reports on updates on the death toll, infections, and endless briefings at the Ministry of Health, Ms Henson recalled.

Beyond the newsroom, swift responses to the crisis were instrumental in keeping transmissions at bay. The authorities adopted a strategy involving the early detection and isolation of suspected cases: educating the public on Sars symptoms and how the virus was spread, and encouraging the public to seek prompt medical attention if symptoms arose.

Thermometers were distributed to over a million households at the time, and temperature checks were regularly conducted at schools and workplaces across the island. Those who were classified as suspected Sars cases were quickly isolated at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, or at the Communicable Disease Centre.

The identification of each Sars case was quickly followed by a contact-tracing exercise, where all those who had come into close contact with a Sars patient were quarantined and monitored. Sars patients who had recovered from the virus were also placed under home quarantine. A dedicated ambulance service was also commissioned to transport suspected Sars cases to-and-fro from the quarantine centre to minimise the likelihood of virus transmission through the public transport system.

At medical facilities, healthcare workers took additional steps to help stem the tide of transmissions. They were required to wear protective gear such as face masks, gloves and gowns when attending to patients, and to monitor their temperatures daily. Temperature checks were carried out scrupulously for hospital visitors, and hospital visits were limited.

Still, despite extensive preventative measures, a number of medical staff succumbed to the deadly virus. Among them was vascular surgeon Alexandre Chao, then 37, who was recalled from Los Angeles to run the medical surgery at Singapore General Hospital.

A candle-lit held in 2003 during the SARS crisis. The event was held in the Singapore Botanic Gardens with then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong as guest of honour

In a 2013 interview with The New Paper, Dr Chao’s widow, Assoc Prof Koh Woon Huay recalled receiving a fateful call the night of April 11, 2003, from Dr Chao, telling her he had a fever. He had said: “Dear, don’t be worried. I have a fever… the protocol is to stay isolated at home for 48 hours and if the fever persists, go to the hospital.” Dr Chao checked himself into hospital the morning of April 15, and died soon after.

Beyond those directly afflicted by the virus, the effects of Sars were wide-reaching. As the virus spread, paranoia spread even more virulently: people stayed home more, avoiding public places and putting travel plans on hold.

The economic impact of the outbreak was also significant, with visitor numbers, hotel occupancy rates, and retail businesses taking a beating. At the same time, taxi drivers in Singapore struggled to make a living, and the country fell into a recession. At the peak of the Sars outbreak in mid-April, the Singapore government slashed the country’s growth forecast for 2003 from 2-5 percent to 0.5-2.5 percent – a grim reminder of how bad things were. Eventually, the economy posted a 4.2 percent year-on-year contraction in the second quarter.

Reflecting on the crisis, Ms Henson said her favourite story was when the World Health Organisation declared Singapore Sars-free on May 30 – by which time she had written more than 30 news reports and commentaries about the crisis. She said:

“It was the busiest and most productive period of my 26-year journalistic career. Yet I hope I will never have to do such reporting again.”

Words by Liew Hanqing, photos by National Archives of Singapore
Published by Singapore Memory Project

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