In March 2003, a deadly then-unknown virus made its way from Hong Kong to Singapore via a Singaporean former flight attendant. Within a month, the virus – later named the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) – spread to over 100 people on the island, killing four. There was widespread fear in dealing with an unknown and deadly disease. The initial alarm and panic soon gave rise to acts of discrimination against healthcare workers.
Taxis and buses refused to stop at Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), the designated screening and treatment centre for SARS. Neighbours did not want to share the elevator with nurses in uniform. Queues at food courts would quickly dissipate whenever a nurse joined the line. After a dialogue with TTSH staff, Dr S. Balaji, then-Minister of State for Health, highlighted the issue to the media and drew attention to these discriminatory, fear-based practices.
Subsequently, there was an outpouring of tributes to healthcare workers on the SARS frontline. Singaporeans condemned discriminatory behaviours towards healthcare workers in forum letters, while others delivered food, drinks and bouquets to TTSH to demonstrate their appreciation.
Singaporeans also expressed support with their participation in initiatives such as the Peach Ribbon Campaign. Peach satin ribbons were worn to show appreciation for healthcare workers. Through the visibility afforded by the ribbons, members of the public were encouraged to make a donation to the Courage Fund, which was set up to provide relief to SARS victims and healthcare workers. Within two months, the campaign raised S$322,121 for the fund.
More and more Singaporeans rallied around those fighting on the frontlines against the virus, forming volunteer and community groups.
Within weeks of the SARS outbreak, many individuals stepped forward to offer their time and resources: the National Volunteer Centre saw hundreds of volunteers register to educate the public on SARS, provide help to quarantined persons, or take temperatures at public events.
Singaporeans found different ways to express their gratitude and appreciation. For example, Ms Rosemary Chng started a “Cookie Loves SGH” project to get the community to give 6,000 jars of cookies to the staff at Singapore General Hospital. Other Singaporeans also gave tokens of appreciation to neighbourhood clinics and a pool of doctors who went on board ships to check for SARS and contain its spread.
Other Singaporeans joined grassroots efforts, such as accompanying the elderly for help checkups or reminding them to practise good hygiene. They also spread the word about being more socially responsible by observing good personal hygiene like washing hands regularly and taking one’s temperature daily. Many volunteers were also involved in community SARS task forces as part of the National Environment Agency’s “OK” campaign to help enforce hygiene standards in public venues.
Professionals from Social Service Agencies also contributed their services for quarantined persons, including telephone counselling, making care arrangements for their dependents and providing home help.
Companies also contributed in meaningful ways. Tecman, a local book distributor, invited customers to write tributes in a Courage Appreciation Book and donated $5 to The Courage Fund for every message received. Singapore’s three telecommunications companies, M1, SingTel and StarHub, provided mobile phones to hospitals to keep in touch with loved ones who were not allowed to visit them. Another 20 companies in the “Purple Heart Lunch Series” pledged to bring 1,200 lunches to Tan Tock Seng Hospital thrice a week.
Meanwhile, donations to charitable funds for the SARS relief effort continued to grow, with the Courage Fundraising $10 million in seven weeks and $32 million in total.
The fight against SARS had brought the nation closer together in solidarity and laid the foundation for a resilient and rapid response to a national crisis, lessons that helped the country when it confronted the COVID-19 pandemic.