COVID-19 SPECIAL: One hundred years of pandemics

How The Straits Times covered past pandemics

Fake news, forum letters and strippers - some articles have echoes today, while others are very much of their time

"Singapore Flu Scare", proclaimed the headline of the May 7, 1957, edition of The Straits Times.

But that was not the worst ever outbreak - that dubious honour belongs to the 1918 so-called Spanish flu pandemic.

News coverage of outbreaks across a century gives not only historical context but also an insight into the evolution of local media.

In 1918, when the front page was typically devoted to advertisements, influenza news was usually relegated to page six or eight. Recovering from World War I, the British government would not have had much time for the ravages of the outbreak upon its far-flung colonies, and information on this period from the perspective of its colonial subjects remains sparse.

In contrast, the 1957 pandemic hogged the headlines, taking place as it did amid the political turmoil of a Singapore moving towards independence.

Reports show how the disease struck Singaporeans from all walks of life, from the Singapore Telephone Board's female operators, known as "hello girls", to the strippers of Rose Chan's infamous stage show, 20 of whom contracted it in Singapore and were later diagnosed while on tour in Malacca. (Chan herself was fine.)

Being on the front lines of disease reporting had its own toll. On May 9, 1957, ST reported that 180 of its employees had contracted the virus over the past few days.

Cultural studies researcher Liew Kai Khiun observes that despite a stark difference in the flow of information - the population in 1918 was considerably less literate than the population today and would have relied more on word of mouth rather than print news - some things do not change.

Left: The Straits Times' front page on May 15, 1957, with its story on the flu pandemic. News coverage of outbreaks across a century gives not only historical context but also an insight into the evolution of local media. Top and above: Readers' lett
Top and above: Readers' letters to The Straits Times in October 1918 about dusty roads and school closures amid the Spanish flu pandemic. PHOTO: ST IMAGE

Fake news, for instance, proliferated then as it does now. In 1918, rumours that the flu could be prevented by eating boiled pumpkins, potatoes and coriander caused the prices of these items to skyrocket.

In 1957, gossip spread across Chinatown and Queenstown that the pandemic had been caused by "radioactive fallout from Russian hydrogen bomb tests", which the university authorities pooh-poohed as "utter nonsense".

Even though the volume of communications was far lower in 1918 than today, Dr Liew notes that the same complaints arose about the oversaturation of information from various sources, which the layman often found confusing and contradictory. "This feels like the countless messages that we have been getting on social media recently."

Forum letters through the years also provide an insight into reader concerns during a pandemic, whether arguments for more sanitary living conditions for migrant workers or, in the case of a peevish missive to ST in October 1918, a lament about the thickness of the "germ-producing dust" in River Valley and Oxley Road.

Another, published some days earlier, commended the government for closing schools but asked that homework also be suspended - a sentiment with which parents struggling with home-based learning today are likely to sympathise.

Adjunct Associate Professor Vernon Lee of the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health stresses the role of the media in not just educating the public about a pandemic as it unfolds, but also chronicling it for posterity.

A lot of the research for papers he co-authored on 20th-century influenza pandemics in Singapore came from poring over old news reports. "It is important that these incidents are documented not just for current but also future generations to learn from these best practices and understand, in hindsight, why certain things were done in certain ways," he says.

"Obviously, every pandemic is going to be different. It's really an adaptation exercise. But we can look at some of these successful measures and plan for the future."

Left: The Straits Times' front page on May 15, 1957, with its story on the flu pandemic. News coverage of outbreaks across a century gives not only historical context but also an insight into the evolution of local media. Top and above: Readers' lett
Above: The Straits Times' front page on May 15, 1957, with its story on the flu pandemic. News coverage of outbreaks across a century gives not only historical context but also an insight into the evolution of local media.PHOTO: ST IMAGE

ST over the last 175 years

The Straits Times turns 175 this year. On July 15, 1845, it was launched as an eight-page weekly, published at 7 Commercial Square using a hand-operated press.

Back then, the front page featured only advertisements, with news reports running on the inside pages without headlines. There were no photographs.

For the first 13 years, the newspaper was published once or twice a week.

It became an afternoon daily under the title Singapore Daily Times in 1858, before reverting to The Straits Times in 1883. It would become a morning paper after World War II.

It took 86 years for the inaugural weekly to transform into the seven-days-a-week newspaper of 20-plus pages, with the launch of The Sunday Times in 1931.

SPH Brightcove Video
From the 1918 Spanish flu to the Covid-19 pandemic now, here's a look at the death toll of infectious diseases which swept through the world - and Singapore - the past 100 years.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 19, 2020, with the headline How The Straits Times covered past pandemics. Subscribe