Fear and loathing

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 April, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 April, 2003, 12:00am

Call it new discrimination for the 21st century. The Sars virus, which looks likely to stay with us for a while yet, has brought out the best and the worst in society. Whether in Canada, Hong Kong, Thailand or Singapore, discrimination - predominantly against Chinese - but also against anyone from countries affected by severe acute respiratory syndrome, is in full flow.

This ostracism has even prompted the head of the American Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to stress that the deadly atypical pneumonia is not unique to Asians.

Yet, in Toronto, Canadian-Chinese complain of discrimination and name-calling, while in Thailand, Thai Airways staff say they are being treated like ghosts and Singaporeans living in Bangkok are banned from one golf club.

In Singapore, nurses in uniform have reported being shunned by the public, taxi drivers and bus conductors. One was asked to move to a hospital dormitory by her landlord who thought it was unsafe to house her, while a dental surgeon refused to see an executive from Tan Tock Seng Hospital, which is treating Sars patients. Some people are refusing to share lifts. It has even been reported that a Chinese worker in a food-service firm may lose his job due to his nationality because a client has demanded he be removed from the premises.

The blame game has also started against the first 'super-infector', a 26-year-old flight attendant, whose name has appeared again and again in local papers. Although she has now recovered, she is still kept in quarantine as the authorities are reluctant to let her go, fearing the media frenzy expected to greet her release, as well as the public's reaction.

With little still known about Sars and how it is transmitted, some public fears are understandable, but at the same time they are at odds with the casual attitude many Singaporeans seem to have taken towards the virus. Few are wearing masks and those who do are being ridiculed in public or even shunned.

In the last few days, newspaper articles have taken pains to shame this type of behaviour. Private citizens have also taken out newspaper advertisements to commend the unsung heroes for their professionalism. An e-register has been opened to record appreciation and support for medical staff, and 1,684 messages have been posted. That is double the number who signed an anti-war petition last month.

In all of this, the government has adopted a 'whiter than white' attitude towards the outbreak, holding daily briefings with details of new patients and how they contracted the disease. This, plus the high level of trust Singaporeans have in their government, has avoided a spread of panic.

Ministers are now saying Singaporeans need to learn to live with Sars and that their mentality and behaviour must change, starting with little things like replacing a handshake with a Thai-style greeting. There is, however, a danger that, over time, a sense of complacency will take over. It will be, as ever, a difficult balance to maintain.