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Pondering Statistical Genomics, H1N1 Flu, and Quarantined Life in Singapore

1 August 2009 1,029 views No Comment
Terry Speed, University of California

Desert Island copyI arrived in Singapore from Melbourne, Australia, late on a Sunday, looking forward to a week’s participation in the statistical genomics program at the Institute for Mathematical Sciences of the National University of Singapore. Not incidentally, Melbourne might have been the H1N1 flu capital of the world at that time, certainly of Australia. Before the first lecture on Monday morning, a slide was put up asking all people who were in specified rows on specified flights into Singapore to contact the Ministry of Health (MOH). Someone in the middle of those sets of rows had presumably tested positive for H1N1 flu, and contacts were being traced. My flight was there, but not my row. Phew! I’d dodged the bullet. There were four terrific lectures that day, several lively discussions, and a pleasant riverside meal that evening.

Just before the first lecture the next morning, another H1N1 slide went up. This one highlighted a new flight and new rows on old flights, including mine, but not my row. Again, a sigh of relief. I didn’t think it then, but two times lucky should have made me cautious. Once more, the day saw four terrific lectures and some excellent discussions. I was really getting into the workshop, looking forward to giving my talk the next morning and having more follow-up discussions—including ones with people from the Genome Institute of Singapore.

I went out again for dinner that night and then back to my hotel early to work on my talk. A message awaited me: “Will Professor Speed please phone Mdm L at the MOH?” I did, and she had lots of advice for me: Don’t leave my room, don’t give my lecture, await further advice from a representative of the ministry. While stressing that this was just advice, it was made clear that as soon as the representative from the MOH arrived, this advice would turn into orders under the Infectious Diseases Act (Chapter 137). So, I took the lady’s advice, stayed in my room, and went with the people who came to take me away to Aloha Loyang the next morning.

Welcome to Aloha

Aloha, a resort of 38 holiday bungalows and terrace houses for civil servants, has been set aside to quarantine people—mainly foreigners—who may have been exposed to the new flu strain, according to the May 29, 2009, edition of Straits Times. The resort is on the northeast coast, just near Changi Airport. Occasionally, we are treated to a foghorn-like sound blaring loudly every few seconds. That was slightly disconcerting on the first night, as I thought it might be a large animal (a tiger?) looking for people who had left their rooms. But no, it was just a bullfrog looking for a mate.

I am LT4/2, in Terrace 4, which consists of four single rooms, a small courtyard, a communal kitchen, and a lounge with TV that I was advised not to use. Through the lounge window is a barbecue area, strip of grass, and the sea. I can gaze through the window at the sea, but only at the risk of being caught outside my room.

Material intended for those of us in Terrace 4—including meals, towels, etc.—is placed on a table outside the terrace door by face-masked carriers. Three times a day, we put on our masks, go out to get what was brought for us, and then retreat to our rooms once more.

The first pick-up of the day is the best, containing the Straits Times, a 1.5-liter bottle of water, assorted tea bags, coffee powders, biscuits, and new face masks. I stuck with my first mask, which has four ribbons to tie together behind my head, so my collection now numbers 14 new masks. I haven’t yet learned how to tell when a face mask is worn out or otherwise past its prime. I wish I had, as I’m looking forward to wearing the nifty kind that hook over one’s ears and don’t need any ribbon tying.

Medically, we are left to ourselves after admission. I take my temperature three times a day with the digital jumbo LCD thermometer, lifetime guarantee (its or mine, I wonder), given to me by the MOH. I take one 75 mg capsule of Tamiflu each day and watch myself closely for flu symptoms. One concern is that sitting all day in a hot room might bring something on, while sitting all day in a cold room might also—though perhaps something different. I turn the air conditioning on and off many times each day in the hope that nothing will come on.

One day, I read in the Straits Times that Singapore is home to the 30 highest-paid government officials in the world. I think I can safely say these 30 don’t holiday in my resort. The spartan simplicity I would put up with in an Australian beach house is less appealing when I can’t leave my room for a swim. Every effort is made to keep us comfortable, within certain bounds, but it is hard not to think of it as a prison cell, if only because of the confinement. The similarity grows when I think of how I would behave if imprisoned in a low-security prison: just as I am now. To be fair, much of my life is spent as it is now, with the exception of compulsory confinement and reduced food choice, so I have little to complain about. Let me elaborate.

Prisoner to Work

On my arrival at Aloha Loyang, I was handed a small black object, which turned out to be my cell phone. I approached it in much the same way as the apes in “2001: A Space Odyssey” approached the mysterious black monolith that appeared before them. Like them, I learned to use it, and, in the process, found my intelligence awakening. Cell phones are the primary mode of communication between front desk and inmates such as me, but it also makes me accessible to the world beyond my resort. In no time, friends, relatives, and colleagues from all around the world—especially Singapore—were calling me to chat, commiserate, or ask for advice. That was one unexpected and delightful aspect of my confinement.

Later, I was handed a small white object, labelled Starhub. This was my white monolith, and after a certain amount of time experimenting with it, I discovered a moving part that permitted it to be plugged in to a USB port, which I did. Things appeared on my laptop screen, and after some downloading and installing, I found myself connected to the “outernet.” (I call it this, as “internet” seems more appropriate to the workings of one’s mind.) So, here I am in a spartan room with a phone and net connection; sitting in a not-very-comfortable chair for hours on end; listening to music or the radio (ABC Classical FM); and breaking only for meals, cups of tea, or reading a newspaper. Voilà, life as usual. Almost.


I miss two things: freedom and good food. I usually keep myself sane, perhaps even slightly more fit than I would otherwise be, by jogging in the morning. When I don’t jog, I do a form of calisthenics—twisting, bending, pushing, etc.—that takes a little effort and occasionally makes me break a sweat. Of course, jogging isn’t open to me now, but the other form of exercise is, and I’m doing a lot of it. Interestingly, I’ve read that prisoners in jails often spend a lot of time doing much the same thing, though perhaps for different reasons.

I am very comfortable eating rice and vegetables from time to time. Indeed, I frequently go out of my way to do so. But, somehow, it pales when served three times a day, and so the food is perhaps the most serious aspect of my confinement.

However, the story picks up at this point. Two wonderful friends living in Singapore have been bringing me supplies. (It would be hard for me to not point out that this is common practice in many countries.) I have been given fresh pasta (spinach and ricotta ravioli, close to the sort I buy every Saturday in Berkeley or Melbourne), bread and cheese (ditto), Ben & Jerry’s ice cream (ditto2), Kettle’s potato chips (ditto3), and other goodies too numerous to mention. The wine didn’t get past the front desk, as this is a medical establishment after all. So my eating, while not quite back to normal, is pretty good and not cause for complaint.

What can I complain about? Well, I missed the workshop, which was the reason I came to Singapore. I missed eating, drinking, and chatting with workshop participants, and I missed jogging along the Singapore River and other places (Bukit Timah, East Coast Park, etc.) The visit is not quite what I planned, but for the reasons I have given, it has been remarkably close to my everyday life. Yes, I am a prisoner to my work.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally solicited by the editors of Imprints, and a modified version of this article will be published in Issue 15 (November 2009) of Imprints of the Institute for Mathematical Sciences, National University of Singapore.

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