Living under the Shadow of SARS

The mysterious disease has thrown a life-altering pall over Singapore, long a paradise for residents and expatriates alike

Singapore used to be something of a pleasure dome for corporate expatriates and their families. The breadwinner of the house could run the regional operation of a multinational corporation from this tropical city-state, while the spouse filled his or her week with shopping, facials, raquetball, or manicures. The kids attended any of half a dozen of the best international schools in Southeast Asia.

Private sports clubs are everywhere, catering to expatriate Americans, British, Japanese, Australians, and Swiss. And on weekends, the whole family had a choice of a zoo where kids could ride the elephants or have breakfast with the chimpanzees, a vast nocturnal-animal safari park, an aviary park packed with colorful birds of paradise, and an aquarium where a conveyor belt took you through a thick glass tunnel literally under sharks.

Once you got bored of all that, you're only an hour or two away from such renowned tropical resort islands as Bali in Indonesia, Phuket in Thailand, and Langkawi in Malaysia. Each an easy ride by commuter plane. And if you weren't well enough to enjoy the city-state's perks, then you had your pick of three medical centers that look more like shopping malls than hospitals.


  That was all before the sudden outbreak of a deadly form of pneumonia known as severe acute respiratory syndrome, however. In short order, SARS has changed the lives of the island's 4 million inhabitants radically. To date, at least 92 Singapore residents have been diagnosed as suffering from the disease -- four of whom have died. An additional 1,500 people who aren't yet sick but are suspected of having come in contact with SARS patients have been ordered to quarantine themselves at home.

"This is for the long haul. It's not going to end any time soon," Singapore Health Minister Lim Hng Kiang warned at a press conference on Mar. 28. The government shut down all schools temporarily on Mar. 26 to prevent the spread of SARS, and the vast majority of Singapore's inhabitants -- about one-quarter of whom are foreigners -- have confined themselves to their homes for fear of catching the disease. Attendance at Singapore's exotic animal parks has plummeted. People aren't even using the airport, so tourism on the nearby resort islands is getting whacked, too (see BW Online, 4/3/03, "War and Disease Are Weighing on Asia").

All this marks a major lifestyle shift for Singapore residents. Three foreign CEOs returned recently from a conference in Hong Kong, where SARS is spreading even more rapidly than in Singapore, only to be told by their local colleagues to work from home in case they had come in contact with the virus. The three CEOs -- David Conner of OCBC Bank, Neil Montefiore of cell-phone network MobileOne, and Stephen Anderson of Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking's Singapore operation -- told the state-run press that they weren't infected but were complying with their colleagues' wishes.


  Companies that manage office complexes all over Singapore are studying contingency plans to shut down if SARS is detected in their buildings. They're warning tenants to procure personal computers for their employees at home to ensure that they're productive.

Meanwhile, with schools closed, the kids are home all day, yet the parents are afraid to take them out for fear of exposing them to SARS. Playgrounds and swimming pools in many private housing estates are deserted -- and at some complexes, the companies that manage them have even declared the areas off-limits.

The playground at Singapore's zoological garden is closed for "renovations." Another sign of the growing fear of the great outdoors, on Sundays at least 10 taxis at a time stand waiting at the zoo entrances' taxi stand -- with no passengers waiting in line. Under normal circumstances, taxis are in such great demand that it can take up to 90 minutes to snag a ride home.


  Even the hospitals are nearly deserted. Outpatients are missing appointments with their physicians for fear they'll catch SARS by entering a hospital. On Apr. 1, a 40-year-old Japanese housewife told me she found the gynecological and maternity clinic at National University (NUH) empty. Normally, it's so packed with patients that she's accustomed to waiting well over an hour past her designated appointment time. This time, she saw her gynecologist immediately. But first, she was screened by a nurse who asked if she had any SARS symptoms, such as a fever or difficulty breathing -- her answer to which was no.

Later in the day, she returned home to find this headline in the Singapore Straits Times: "Surprise SARS death at NUH." That came as a rude shock, she says, because the Health Ministry had claimed earlier that all SARS patients in Singapore were being isolated at a different medical institution, Tan Tok Seng Hospital.

The tension is especially palpable now, since the SARS threat comes in the wake of fears of Islamic terrorism post-September 11. The arrests in Singapore last year of nearly 40 members of Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asia wing of al Qaeda, resulted in heightened security measures at embassies and expat bars. Then, after several Jemaah Islamiyah members were arrested on charges of bombing a Bali night club last October, armed Gurkha guards were posted at the American Club and the British Club in Singapore.


  In early March, fears of retaliation by Iraq against U.S. targets prompted office buildings to beef up security even further, issuing new electronic ID cards to tenants and screening them with handheld metal detectors as they enter.

The few Singapore residents who do actually leave the island these days find that an airport official inserts a small brown card into their passports warning immigrations officials at your destination that they "may have been exposed to SARS." At the airport in Manila, passengers disembarking from Singapore Airlines flights are met by a Filipina nurse who collects "accomplished health" forms swearing that they aren't suffering from a high fever, breathing difficulty, or other SARS symptoms.

The Philippine officials manning the immigrations counters are all wearing surgical masks to protect themselves from inhaling the virus. In Thailand, travelers from Singapore are required to wear surgical masks on their faces while in the country -- even if they're not infected.


  "Those without symptoms who are allowed to enter must wear masks at all times," Thai Health Minister Sudarat Keyuraphan told reporters on Apr. 2. In Malaysia, the government is cutting down on the number of visas it issues to foreign tourists from SARS-affected countries.

In short, travelers might as well be wearing a scarlet letter. A Singapore-based analyst for an international ratings agency traveled to Tokyo on Mar. 31 for meetings with his colleagues there, only to find that they wouldn't see him face-to-face -- so he strategized with them over the phone from his Tokyo hotel room.

Small wonder tourism authorities in Bali complain that arrivals -- already suffering since the bombing last October -- are down 38% since the SARS outbreak. And until a vaccine or treatment for the disease is discovered, the prognosis for the region's sense of well-being isn't good at all.

Shari is BusinessWeek's Singapore bureau chief

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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