How this underrated yet highly developed nation is kicking COVID-19’s viral butt.
When Wuhan first announced its initial cases of coronavirus in late 2019, mainland China’s neighboring little island was already ahead of the game by enforcing prevention strategies. Taiwanese officials boarded planes from Wuhan to help passengers, instructing those with fever into isolation.
Out of Taiwan’s 23 million population, 850,000 Taiwanese reside in China mostly for business. Separated by 130 kilometers of Taiwan Strait between the island and the mainland, Taiwan should’ve seen the most devastating cases of COVID-19 within a hot minute. As of March 23, however, it had only witnessed 195 cases and two deaths. Diligently protecting its nation in total composure, Taiwan has become the poster child for fighting against a fierce global pandemic.
But how is Taiwan doing so? Why aren’t other countries following suit? Once France was in confinement earlier last week, I booked the last flight out from Paris to Taipei where many would argue it is possibly the world’s safest place at the moment. From EVA Airway’s persistent procedure at CDG airport (taking every passenger’s body temperature) to my driver’s careful practices in Taipei, it’s no surprise that Taiwan has kept its people safe amid worldwide crisis mode.
Despite sporadic news coverage regarding Taiwanese government’s assiduous game plan, the main reason behind Taiwan’s successful battle against coronavirus can’t be seen but can only be felt. It’s cultural. It comes with zero entitlement.
Since 1971, Taiwan’s political state has been ambiguous. No, it’s not Thailand. And if you ask whether Taiwan is a part of China, the answer may differ depending on who you ask, even if the person is technically Taiwanese. For 49 years, Taiwan’s membership in the United Nations has been replaced by the People’s Republic of China. According to most Taiwanese, the spirit of survival in the name of unity shines through via humbled resilience. When a nation’s independence is often subjected to questions, a sense of perpetual fear incurred by doubts and threats somehow results in solidarity. Consequently, when the government asks citizens to follow regulations for the sake of an unknown virus. EVERYONE listens.
To most Taiwanese, the idea of Spring Breakers refusing to leave sunny beaches is unfathomable, if not, laughable. The idea of walking in public without wearing a face mask is selfish, if not, dumb. During dire times, most Taiwanese cannot comprehend the concept of prioritizing fashion before health. It’s purely puzzling. Eagerly complying with government policies isn’t precisely out of fear of repeating what happened during SARS, but rather, it’s putting “WE” before “ME.”
Much of Taiwan’s extraordinary fight against coronavirus is led by Health Minister and Head of Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC): Chen Shi-Chung, or Mr. Clock, since his name “Shi-Chung” literally sounds like the word “clock” in Mandarin. With his guidance, the Taiwanese public is well informed without panic. Everyday, he conducts a press conference by running down a list of new cases: where did new patients contract the virus, their current states, what’s being done to aid them and their families…etc. Issued from the President’s office, these press conferences are streamed online and available on YouTube, even I was following religiously from my apartment in Paris. Mr. Clock never raises his voice, he answers every question with the utmost patience and in detail.
Sure, there’s been a few controversies here and there. For instance, he commissioned a few airplanes to China only to fly back passengers carrying Taiwanese passports while refusing to board Chinese wives (married into Taiwanese families) but were yet to be naturalized as Taiwanese citizens. Undeterred by criticism, Mr. Clock continues his hectic daily routine: press conference in the morning, meetings at the Parliament in the afternoon, gearing up in protective equipment at Taoyuan International Airport to confront new cases firsthand at night. In general, he keeps the communication transparent with a simple message: wash your hands, wear face masks, maintain social distancing. Mr. Clock’s popularity is riding so high, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary if he was elected to be the next President of Taiwan.
Taiwan founded the National Health Command Center (NHCC) after 2003’s SARS outbreak. Once news broke that Wuhan was suffering from coronavirus, NHCC quickly implemented 124 guidelines, spanning from declaring travel bans, issuing health protocols for schools, to manufacturing 44 million face masks by end of January. To instantly stockpile N95 and surgical mask supplies, the government immediately recruited hundreds of soldiers to work in assembly lines. To control supply versus demand, authorities permitted every citizen to buy two masks a week while retail price was restricted to avoid exploitation.
The government meant business when it came to penalizing quarantine violators and those who spread false information. According to Article 58 of Communicable Disease Control Act, anyone ignoring quarantine obligations can still be fined anywhere from NT $10,000 (USD $3,300) to NT $1 million (USD $33,000.) Interested in spreading fake news? Expect a hefty fine.
Home to the world’s largest semiconductor manufacturer, it’s no surprise that Taiwan used advanced technology to control the spread of COVID-19. Within a day, it accomplished the complicated task of merging national health insurance and immigration databases, then widely distributed this information to help identify cases. For every person landing at Taoyuan International Airport, a local staff is there to electronically collect passengers’ information in order to track their 14-day travel history. If a person has visited a level 2 or 3 region, self-isolation or quarantine is mandatory. The government follows up at least twice a day by SMS and/or phone calls.
In addition, Taiwanese government partnered with HTC and LINE – the text messaging app widely used in Asia – to create an online system through LINE Bot that retrieves daily health reports from people in self-isolation and quarantine. Such forward-thinking approach relieves the pressure off the medical staff’s shoulders while containing a widespread virus. According to Liberty Times, Israel announced on March 14 that it will emulate Taiwan’s use of smart technologies to track coronavirus cases.
So, why haven’t more countries adopted these implementations? Because no one really knows about Taiwan, certainly not its impressive universal healthcare system. Every trip to the doctor either at a private clinic or in a hospital costs NT $150 (USD $5,) thanks to National Health Insurance (NHI) – a single-payer insurance plan financed through premiums and payroll tax that guarantee every citizen’s equal access to healthcare. Coronavirus outbreak or not, the system allows testing facilities and advanced medical treatment readily available and completely affordable.
Another reason for ignorance stems from Taiwan’s inability to attend World Health Organization’s (WHO) annual assembly even as a non-state actor. Since Taiwan isn’t a member of the UN, its application to participate is consistently blocked. This prevents some of the world’s most talented medical experts from partaking in important discussions, including last year’s analysis on influenza vaccines. Today, we’re witnessing the consequence of hindering Taiwanese doctors and researchers to engage in global health conversations. In critical times like these, extensive knowledge could’ve been shared. More lives could’ve been saved.
Some may think that actions conducted by the Taiwanese government run on extremity, but on this island, cities aren’t ghost towns while citizens aren’t drenched in total paranoia. Folks are going about their daily lives, not in the name of entitlement. Just with a face mask.