Reaction mixed in Singapore to SARS vigilance

Sun Staff

SINGAPORE - It has been more than six weeks since this tiny island nation was declared free of SARS, and still it seems the deadly respiratory disease is everywhere.

The international airport uses thermal-imaging scanners to screen travelers for signs of fever. Bus and taxi drivers, who are required to take their temperatures daily, display cards in their windshields declaring, "I'm Okay."

And a popular actor who has been described as Singapore's version of Jim Carrey was recently enlisted to record the Sar-Vivor rap - a satirical plug for good hygiene that reminds people to wash their hands, throw away their tissues and refrain from spitting in public.

Though no new cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome have been reported here since May, the disease has become a part of everyday life.

Some scoff at the increased vigilance, dismissing the need for mandatory temperature checks and education efforts such as the government's SARS TV channel, which went off the air only about a week ago.

A little inconvenience

But others think the measures are well-intended and say they don't mind putting up with a little inconvenience here or there if it means peace of mind.

"People are willing to make the small sacrifices for their own health and safety," said Jacqueline Lee, 25, who gets her temperature taken every morning at the electronics firm where she works.

"It does get to be a chore after some time, but I think it is necessary," said Paul Sim, 26, an employee at a food manufacturing company who also has his temperature checked daily.

To enter some buildings, visitors have to fill out forms leaving their contact information so they can be reached if there is another outbreak.

Workers at hotels wear dark blue buttons on their uniforms that say "COOL," a program designed to recognize establishments that have adopted anti-SARS measures ranging from employee temperature checks to more frequent cleaning. Taxi drivers carry SARS "battle kits," which include masks, thermometers, alcohol swabs and information in several languages.

The "Free Singapore from SARS" sweepstakes, which is being run by the government-sanctioned lottery operator, is offering a top prize of $1 million in a drawing next month. Proceeds from ticket sales will benefit SARS-related causes.

On the health care front, hospitals are on "orange alert," meaning that fever screenings and other precautions, including restricted visiting privileges, are still in effect. Staff members taking temperatures at National University Hospital wear masks, gloves and gowns and hand out stickers that display each person's thermometer reading for all to see.

About 10,000 patients there and at two other affected hospitals reportedly have had their medical records rechecked to make sure their symptoms didn't mimic those of the dreaded disease. Blood samples from 2,000 people who had been hospitalized as suspected SARS cases also are being collected and screened.

More than 200 people in Singapore were infected during the worldwide outbreak; 32 died here.

The effects went far beyond hospital wards. Normally bustling shopping centers were suddenly quiet. Scores of hotel rooms and airline seats were empty. Some restaurants had to close their doors. Tourism plummeted, and the island's economy sagged.

A huge government SARS relief package - worth more than $131 million - is beginning to help turn the situation around. The Singapore Tourism Board estimates that 300,000 people visited last month, compared with 170,000 in May.

During a recent stop in Singapore, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Julie L. Gerberding, praised the country's anti-SARS efforts as "exemplary" but warned that the disease is likely to be back.

That's the message local government officials have been trying to get out.

The SARS rap, which is being backed by the Ministry of Health, is one gimmick to that end. It is performed by actor Gurmit Singh, who plays the character Phua Chu Kang in a popular television sitcom. He sings in a mix of local dialect and English, known as Singlish, which has been an object of the government's scorn.

"Some say 'leh,' some say 'lah,' Uncle Phua says, 'Time to fight SARS,'" it begins. "Everybody, we have a part to play to help fight SARS at the end of the day."

A later verse reminds people not to spit - or "kak-pui" in Singlish.

"Cover your mouth if you cough or sneeze. You think everyone want to catch your disease? Don't 'kak-pui' all over the place. You might as well 'kak-pui' on my face."

Though there were at least a half-dozen copies at Sembawang, a music seller at Raffles City shopping center, a clerk said they have been selling quickly.

Fadzlina Rahman, who works at the concierge desk at the mall, says she kind of likes it.

"It's hip, and there's a message from the song itself," she said.

Complacency sets in

Despite the government's push to keep residents on guard, one recent newspaper poll found that complacency has begun to set in.

More than 40 percent of respondents hadn't picked up free anti-SARS kits, according to the survey in The New Paper. And although 62 percent took their temperatures daily during the height of the outbreak, only 38 percent do now. What's more, nearly a quarter believe that the country is being too vigilant in its continuing battle against SARS.

The Ministry of Health is sponsoring a commemorative ceremony this month at the Botanic Gardens to honor those who died of SARS and health care workers who were on the front lines in the fight against it.

As another sign of appreciation, Singapore's two health groups are giving their employees a bonus of $1,000 and 10 percent of their monthly pay.

What has most upset one man about the SARS situation now is what people leaving Mount Elizabeth Medical Center have been doing with their temperature-check stickers: plastering them all over fences, lamp posts and trash bins. In a letter to the editor of the Straits Times, another English-language daily, he said he was "appalled" and compared the behavior to littering or vandalism. He urged the government to impose a fine of $100 or more on those who are caught.

"Such behavior paints us as ugly Singaporeans," he wrote. "You won't see this in other developed countries like Japan."

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