ST journalists recount Sars experience

RazorTV journalist Shawn Lee Miller, who was the moderator at the talk, with (from left) opinion editor Chua Mui Hoong, photo editor Stephanie Yeow and health correspondent Salma Khalik. The speakers shared their experiences during the Sars crisis, which gripped Singapore.
PHOTO: ST journalists recount Sars experience

SINGAPORE - The Straits Times (ST) health correspondent Salma Khalik remembers how scary it was to cover the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) crisis of 2003 - especially in the early days.

She said: "Not much was known about the virus at that time but I did not want to lose a good story, so I went into one of the Sars wards in Tan Tock Seng hospital, when Sars first broke out."

Shortly after, the Health Ministry issued stricter guidelines. The media was not allowed into wards to prevent the spread of the severe form of atypical pneumonia, which hit Singapore on March 1, 2003, and took 33 lives and infected 238 people in all.

Ms Khalik was recounting her experience covering Sars at a talk last night, organised as part of The Straits Times Appreciates Readers (Star) programme.

It was held in conjunction with We: Defining Stories, a photo exhibition put up by the newspaper and the National Museum of Singapore.

The exhibition, which aims to give people the chance to revisit landmark moments in Singapore's history, features more than 400 photographs from the newspaper's archives and the museum's collection.

Speaking alongside Ms Khalik were ST photo editor Stephanie Yeow and opinion editor Chua Mui Hoong.

During the hour-long session attended by 100 readers, Ms Chua shared her experiences writing A Defining Moment: How Singapore Beat Sars, a book she had written in 2004, while Ms Yeow recalled how photographers took precautions.

The photographers and reporters had camped out at the hospital to bring readers news about the disease, which is transmitted after coming into contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person.

Said Ms Yeow: "While everyone was keeping away from danger, we were going towards it because we had to report what was going on as it was our job and duty."

A series of about 40 photographs taken during the Sars period were also screened during the talk.

They included photographs of isolation wards at the hospitals, ambulance drivers clad in surgery gowns and N95 masks, and a particularly sombre shot of the coffin of a Sars victim.

The treatment of health-care workers during the period was also discussed at the talk.

Ms Khalik said nurses were shunned during the period. "They were the ones who helped people survive. But the way people treated them... it was terrible."

Still, the speakers said that while the epidemic had divided the country, it also united the people in other ways. One example was how an anonymous person had sent 1,000 gerberas to health-care workers in hospital, Ms Chua said.

She added that there were lessons to be learnt, such as how everyone was in it together.

"We know many health-care workers were from the Philippines, or China, and elsewhere."

Piano teacher Madam Cynthia Chow, 50, said the talk was very insightful.

"It's wonderful that the journalists shared their experience with us... it's good to see what goes on behind the scenes."

Madam Gene Sze, 58, a retired civil servant, agreed. "We read a lot about Sars but it's good that we can hear from someone who was covering the news."

This article was first published on June 7, 2014.
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