Memoirs of a SARSa

As the WuHanFlu pandemic rapidly takes grip, it is worth recounting the SARS crisis of 2002…

The first I heard about SARS was when a taxi driver picked me up with his car door windows completely open. I congratulated him on his appreciation of the climate and rejection of air conditioning which tends to be frigidly standard in Singapore taxis. Rather than embracing the tropical climate, he brusquely responded “the windows are open cos i don’t want to catch the Cantonese Flu”. I thought he was a weirdo but within a few hours the first hints of crisis were emerging.

At its deepest trough , Changi Airport in Singapore hosted only 10 flights in a single day. Usually they cater for 10 flights every 10 minutes. I recall being at the airport that evening when the entire Terminal 2 departure hall was in darkness with just one trolley-uncle sleeping in a chair. Normally there would have been 28 gates open serving thousands of travellers. I had managed to secure a seat on a flight to Australia to serve a ‘quarantine ‘ period and the only reason that the flight had arrived was to deliver its precious cargo of World Health Organisation professionals establishing a beach head in Singapore to direct the crisis.

As it dragged on the feeling for most residents in Asia generally and Singapore in particular, was will this ever end?

In hingsight, the SARS epidemic was bad but it wasn’t like the plague in the Middle Ages that wiped out 1 in 3 nor the flu epidemic of 1918 that killed 50million people. To their credit, the medical authorities and epidemiologists did a fantastic job containing and ultimately defeating SARS.

However, there was some stupidity from which lessons can be learned as we enter the current WuHanFlu pandemic. Not surprisingly, the banking sector exhibited much of this behaviour.

In banking, mandatory regulation and prudent risk management practices require Financial Institutions to maintain emergency contingency plans.  These plans are quite detailed and once activated are rigidly enforced. My recollection is that Deutsche Bank was the first major financial institution to activate their contingency plan during SARS.  Every other major bank responded within hours by activating their own plans as well.  This was all well and good at the time but as the crisis rolled on, there was one detail that had not been planned…how and when should the contingency be DE-activated?

As the months dragged on, watching the game being played by the major banks in contingency mode was fascinating.  Twice per day, the risk management heads for each institution had a conference call where each would state their position.  If one bank decided to lift their emergency status while others remained in contingency mode then they would be an outlier, risking the industry for their own benefit, thereby attracting criticism. This reinforced the contingency position and the whole sector got stuck.  No-one was bold enough to act unilaterally.  Eventually, the government took the lead by stating Singapore would be SARS-free provided there was no new case reported for 14 consecutive days.  Hopes were raised upon reaching 11 days one month only to be deflated when one poor guy turned up to hospital with SARS and the clock reset.  Finally, the 14 days ticked over and the country was SARS-free and contingency plans were abandoned.

Another key player in the SARS crisis was the United States.  They banned arrivals from Asia very early on and somehow remained SARS-free throughout the crisis.  The USA’s insulation from the disease made them unreasonable to deal with since Asian countries were excluded from travel and trade to ‘protect’ the US economy.  Notably, this time around, the WuHanFlu has showed up in the US very early on in this crisis so the US can hardly dictate terms to the rest of the world.

Finally, the most amusing experience I had was being denied entry to India on the basis that I had come from Singapore which was a SARS affected country.  India is an amazing place but travellers seldom leave without being infected with some undocumented microbe, dysentery or typhus-related disease.  To have India deny travellers entry on health grounds was truly ironic!


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