St Johns Island Quarantine Station
Quarantine orders, stay home notices, and social distancing — these seem so distinctly COVID-19. But #TIL that Singapore has been through something like this, nearly two centuries ago. 😷
In the 19th century, as a transit and trading hub for people from all over the world, Singapore was a hotspot for communicable diseases. This included smallpox, leprosy, and cholera. Partly due to the population’s resistance to vaccines, a smallpox epidemic broke out in 1838. This was followed in 1873 by a cholera outbreak that claimed 448 lives.
Thus, a quarantine station opened on St John’s Island in 1874 — just in time to take in some 1,300 coolies from the S.S. Milton, arriving from Swatow, China. Thereafter, ship passengers had to disembark at St John’s Island, and stay for between a few days and two weeks, before they were allowed onto Singapore’s mainland. These included Chinese coolies, and pilgrims travelling to and from Mecca. When the St John’s Island quarantine station first opened, it was just a cluster of attap huts, accompanied by muster sheds and showers for passengers. Clothing and belongings had to be put through steam boiler houses for disinfection.
By 1935, the quarantine station had grown to become one of the largest in the world, and could accommodate about 6,000 people in 22 camps at any time. Medical facilities had expanded to include storehouses with sulphur to fumigate ships, and hospitals for treating diseases such as smallpox, cholera, and bubonic plague. The island also had a dispensary, a laboratory, and cooling chambers for vaccines.
In the following decades, it was a combination of vaccines, improvements in public and healthcare infrastructure, and quarantines that helped prevent the spread of diseases on the mainland. Eventually, the St Johns Island quarantine station closed in 1976, and was no longer the first thing new arrivals saw of Singapore.
Today, we’re learning to live with an endemic COVID-19 through a combination of vaccines, social distancing, testing, and home quarantines and recovery. We’re not quite there yet, as any transition takes time. But we’re on our way.