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Commentary: SARS was scary, but the experience was invaluable in shaping our Wuhan virus response

As the Wuhan virus claims a seventh confirmed case in Singapore, it’s worth remembering the domestic resilience and international cooperation that got the country through SARS in 2003.

Commentary: SARS was scary, but the experience was invaluable in shaping our Wuhan virus response

A woman is seen wearing a protective face mask at Orchard Road, Singapore on Jan 28. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

SINGAPORE: SARS was a very real experience for me.

I’ll never forget the sight of two men in scrubs, caps, gloves and masks arriving at our doorstep, after my mother called 995 when my fever and cough would not break despite days of flu medication.

It was 2003. Singapore was in the throes of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

The sight that greeted me at Tan Tock Seng Hospital made fear of​​​​​​​ the virus very real.

Dozens of beds were laid around the A&E ward, which had been turned into an emergency site to deal with the challenge. A lot was happening. 

Tan Tock Seng Hospital was the place many healthcare workers did battle with SARS. (Photo: Tan Tock Seng Hospital)

Medical professionals were busy drawing blood and taking people’s vitals. Nurses were following up with patients and ensuring those free from the virus left the place promptly.

Frozen in dread to the bed I was assigned, I looked awkwardly at many other patients who gave faint smiles, all of us thinking to ourselves some may have to face a life-threatening fight soon and might not live to tell it.


SARS arrived on Singapore shores like a silent killer in the night. Although the first case broke in China in November 2002, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued an alert only in March 2003.

It was unclear at first what the virus was, how bad it was and how long the crisis would grip Singapore.

Face masks and common cold medication were wiped off shelves. People started to stay away from public spaces, including hawker centres, malls and mass events, and shunned healthcare workers.

Questions were also raised about whether our healthcare systems were up to scratch in dealing with the threat.

With Singapore confirming its seventh case of the Wuhan virus on Tuesday (Jan 28), such scenes may have played out in the minds of concerned Singaporeans reading the news.

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Rumours and misinformation are a risk. A general correction order was issued to SPH Magazines for a Hardware Zone post falsely alleging a man had died from the Wuhan virus in Singapore.


But while fear may have been the memory of SARS that many Singaporeans have, what comes to my mind instead is how decisively control was wrestled back.

A Ministerial Committee chaired by then Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng was established to drive the national response.

Strong action was taken. Home quarantine was imposed under the Infectious Disease Act, and schools were closed for almost two weeks.

To stem the spread, screening protocols were ramped up in most public places. Contact tracing was instituted and hourly temperature-taking became the norm.

An intensive public education campaign was also mounted. Tool kits were distributed to Singapore households.

Singaporeans understood the need for such actions to mitigate the risk and strongly supported these moves.


The SARS outbreak also brought forth a strong level of regional and global cooperation.

Despite the disparaging vitriol over China’s initial slow reaction, governments in affected countries pulled out all stops to curb the spread.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) met in an emergency summit, initiated by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, where a joint plan of action was agreed upon, including recommendations to standardise health declaration cards, temperature screening and information-sharing.

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha at the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit 2019 in Bangkok, Thailand - the city where a Special ASEAN Leaders' Meeting on SARS was convened among ASEAN heads of government in April 2003. (Photo: REUTERS)

The WHO was enlisted to deploy consultants and field teams in support of national responses, including investigations of a super spreader hospitalised in Singapore in March that year.

It set up a virtual network of public health institutions, health ministries and WHO country offices to exchange case experiences and findings that built up a comprehensive surveillance picture.

And it established case definitions and standards for global reporting, and published daily situational updates to enhance the flow of information.

Such activities helped to catalyse a thoughtful and concerted overall international response and developed standards and best practices in infection control and risk mitigation.

With the unprecedented level of international cooperation and strong action from governments, SARS was contained in a matter of months, despite the fact no vaccine or cure was ever developed.

READ: Commentary: Does it really matter if WHO hasn't designated Wuhan virus a global public health emergency?

A logo is pictured on the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Nov 22, 2017. (File photo: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse)

The WHO declared Singapore SARS free on May 30, 2003. The relief in the air was palpable.


Speaking in Davos last Thursday (Jan 24), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong urged Singaporeans to be calm but watchful, adding that the Government is well prepared to deal with the new coronavirus.

PM Lee pointed to the establishment of a multi-ministry task force co-chaired by Health Minister Gan Kim Yong and National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.

Numerous plans to curb the risk of spread have since been stood up, including the set-up of quarantine facilities, increased border checks and a compulsory leave of absence for students and teachers from China, announced by the multi-ministry task force on Monday.

Public health capabilities in dealing with infectious diseases here have also since been enhanced after 2003. A new National Centre for Infectious Disease has replaced the decades-old Communicable Disease Centre.

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Academics from the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health are also enlisted in epidemiological research today.


Back to 2003. After blood tests and close observation, I was sent home with a somewhat clean bill of health: No SARS, just an incredibly strong bout of the flu.

To be sure, I was more fortunate than the over 200 Singaporeans who contracted the virus and the dozens who lost their lives, which include five healthcare workers who made the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty.

Thinking back, what I was most grateful for was the kampung spirit and sense of togetherness the episode brought out.

For days while I rested at home, concerned neighbours unsure of whether contact was really still safe nonetheless popped by and left gifts of homemade soups and fruits with my mother.

Singapore has to be prepared that the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak could be worse than the SARS epidemic in 2003, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said on Monday.

“Be psychologically prepared that this may take some time to unravel, but be assured too that you have a system in place,” he said, citing the inter-ministry coordination mechanisms and drawer plans in place for a full range of different scenarios of the virus outbreak.

Today, as fears of the Wuhan virus grow, many Singaporeans might recall 2003, the year SARS had Singapore in its grip.

But while that period has generally been framed as a cautionary tale of how pandemics can threaten societies, what comes to my mind is a more optimistic picture.

It was a time of international cooperation - when international collaboration and multilateral organisations played an important role in solving a transboundary challenge, and countries around the world exercised political will to bring the problem under control.

It was also a time when the Singapore Government bolstered public confidence in national institutions and Singaporeans were cautious but did not let the threat stop them from rallying together.

Lin Suling is executive editor at CNA Digital News where she oversees the Commentary section and the new Heart of the Matter podcast.

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Source: CNA/sl(db)


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