A Defining Moment: How Singapore Beat SARS

When Miss Esther Mok sought medical treatment in Singapore on 1st March 2003 due to a fever and cough she was experiencing, the doctors were bewildered over her mysterious illness after they ruled out existing medical conditions such as pneumonia, dengue fever and bird flu. As it turned out, Miss Esther Mok was patient number one in Singapore to experience severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) after her February 2003 vacation in Hong Kong which involved staying in the same level at Hotel Metropole as a Guangdong doctor who had SARS.

Written by Chua Mui Hoong, Straits Times’ senior political correspondent at the time, A Defining Moment: How Singapore Beat SARS invites readers to explore the impact SARS had on Singapore, especially economically, psychologically and socially, and how different segments of society, such as patients, healthcare workers, cleaners, hospital staff, scientists, public and private sector organisations and employees, schools, students, volunteers and just about anyone residing in Singapore, played their part in reducing or combating the spread of SARS.

Covering the time period of 1st March 2003 till 1st April 2004, below are some key points from the book:

  1. Out of the 238 individuals who came down with SARS in Singapore, 33 of them did not survive the illness.
  2. Despite the gravity of the SARS situation, the heavy workload and the health risks medical staff faced, many doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, hospital cleaners and hospital administrators dedicated themselves in helping to tackle the SARS situation.
  3. To reduce the transmission of SARS, no visitors were allowed into public hospitals between 29th April 2003 to 1st June 2003. Some patients felt despondent in having to deal with their medical conditions alone. In response, Alexandra Hospital’s IT team set up and made available a videophone room in their visitors’ lounge to enable visitors to see and communicate with patients.
  4. Besides the tourism and aviation industry, stallholders and employees in Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre also experienced financial difficulties as the entire area had to be closed for 15 days after 1 vegetable stall worker came down with SARS.
  5. Similar to our present day COVID-19 measures, contact tracing, home quarantines, regular temperature taking and school closures were put in place. However, as SARS took place in 2003 when smartphones were not the norm, no digital contact tracing applications or systems, such as TraceTogether and SafeEntry, were utilised. Instead, contact tracing involving the use of name lists, excel sheets and interviews was made possible from the combined efforts of the Ministry of Health (MOH), National Environment Agency (NEA), Criminal Investigation Department and Central Narcotics Bureau. 
  6. The government considered the needs of healthcare workers as well as the masses. For example, while hospital staff were already wearing masks, the masses were also given masks in an anti-SARS kit made available to each household and were instructed to only wear them if they were unwell.
  7. When one local hospital nearly ran short of gowns one day, Mr Goh Aik Guan from the Ministry of Trade and Industry assembled a logistics expert team comprising staff from the Armed Forces, the Defence Science & Technology Agency (DSTA), Sembawang Logistics (SembLog) and International Enterprise (IE) Singapore to assist in procuring an adequate supply. The initiative also involved working with Sing Lun Holdings, a garment maker, to create and supply the gowns.
  8. Scientists from different disciplines in the Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS) worked towards studying SARS, understanding its genetic code and developing a SARS test kit.
  9. 235 volunteers responded to a call for help with SARS related activities such as temperature taking, public education and providing support to those serving home quarantine orders.

The book provides detailed accounts of the efforts made by the government to fight SARS and readers will find many events familiar to the current COVID-19 situation.

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