Remembering Sars

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“Where’s your meeting?” my boss asked.

“The birthplace of Sars.”

The irony was not lost on me as I made my maiden visit to Guangzhou for a business meeting while the world commemorates the 10th anniversary of Sars. As the taxi weaved through the peak-hour traffic, all I could think of was how inter-connected we all were, and perhaps even more now. A virus that supposedly started in bats, made its way through someone’s tummy, and ended up infecting more than 8,000 people worldwide, with a 10% fatality rate. In Singapore, it killed 33.

Ten years ago, I was still a journalist and was hunting for Sars before it even had a name. It was one of those days when I was on 3pm duty, which means you get to start work at 3pm and work til midnight, and you cover anything that happens last minute. I never liked 3pm duties, I always pray that no one important dies, no fatal car crashes and nothing big explodes while I’m on 3pm. And the 3pm reporter is also the person the editor sends out to check out hunches or verify grapevine rumours — which was exactly what happened to me. The editors heard that  a few people have taken ill from a mysterious flu that is not responding to any antibiotics.

“Can you go to Tan Tock Seng Hospital and find out more about this flu?” my editor ordered.

“Ok, do you know which ward?”

“All we know is that they’re at TTSH.”

Sighing inside, I left the office and resigned myself to a day of combing the hospital for some people with a bad bout of flu. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for when I arrived at the hospital. Perhaps people huddled around looking worried, maybe a big sign saying “mysterious flu here”. And I had to be very careful to look for the information without letting on that I’m a reporter. So I combed every floor, and every ward that I could get into. I even pretended to be a concerned friend of the mysteriously ill patient (I know it’s not exactly ethical, but trust me, you don’t want to go back to the editor empty-handed), but none of the nurses seem to know where the patients with the flu are.

A few days later, I was on the dratted 3pm duty again, and on a Sunday too. A Singapore Airlines flight from New York was quarantined at Frankfurt because a Singaporean doctor on board was sick. The entire media circus was waiting at the Changi Airport when the plane finally arrived in Singapore. As expected, the passengers weren’t none too keen to talk given their enforced quarantine, they all just wanted to get to a clean shower and bed.

I was still quite blase about everything until more people started getting sick and more people were getting quarantined. I offhandedly told another editor that I was roaming about TTSH in the early days of the disease when she freaked out and sent me to the doctor’s for a blood test. I thought she was over-reacting, until people started dying.

The Ministry of Health gave daily Sars updates which highlighted new deaths and new cases. Sometimes names of the deceased were given, sometimes not. If there was a name, we were expected to try to locate the victim’s family and do a story. These daily updates made depressing news. For a few weeks, people died almost every week and the number of new infections just kept on going up. There was no logic as to whom Sars would claim. The old died, the young died, men died, women died, even the healthy died. Yet we found comfort in the small victories, rejoicing when no new deaths were recorded or when the rate of infection slowed.

For two months, the little country was at war with an invisible enemy and the soldiers on the frontline fought hard. I salute the staff at TTSH and Singapore General Hospital who continued to care for the Sars patients at great personal cost. Not only did they put their lives at risk but they were also shunned by neighbours and even relatives who were afraid of being infected. They did the work, I just wrote the stories.

And it was to remember how the nation pulled together that a team of us were commissioned to put together a special supplement on Sars. As I was one of the few in the newsroom who could just about string a sentence in Chinese together , I was assigned to talk to a Mandarin-speaking Sars survivor. She made it but her husband and son didn’t. To me, the most distasteful part about being a journalist is having to talk to grieving families and intruding into their privacy. But a job is a job and sometimes it can be cathartic for the grieving to talk about their loved ones, I consoled myself, like the time when a man was telling me about this brother’s favourite football club just hours after the brother jumped to his death.

So I steeled myself and went to talk to Mrs Tay, who was 54 then. Thankfully, the counsellors have already spoken to her and she was open to talking to us. The first thing I noticed when I stepped into her flat was how spartan it looked. She’d thrown away everything that reminded her of her husband and son — bed, mattress, CDs, posters. She kept some family photos and her husband’s brand-new passport. Both Mrs Tay and her husband sold vegetables at a wholesale centre and had planned a trip to China later that year. It would have been their first trip overseas.

Now, if interviewing a grieving widow and mum was difficult, the worst was yet to come. I needed a photo. Colleagues with similar assignments were all having problems with getting visuals. Seeing that Mrs Tay has yet to chase me out of her flat with a broom, I plunged right in and asked if we could take a photo. She was reluctant at first, but in the end she said yes, to my extreme relief.

Looking at the article and photo 10 years later, the same lump rises in my throat. What do you say to a woman who’s lost her husband and son to a deadly disease? You just ache along with her. Even now.

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