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COVID in Taiwan: The Secret of Success

Currently, the majority of the world is experiencing a small-scale apocalypse. The entire globe has come to a complete standstill as it suffers through the worst global pandemic in centuries. I wouldn’t know anything about that, as I’m currently living in Taiwan, a country that has almost completely avoided any negative impact from COVID-19 and remains one of the safest countries in the world in a time of such carnage. If it weren’t for regular calls home and browsing online articles, I would have no idea that the rest of the world was in total lockdown. So, what is Taiwan’s secret?

How has Taiwan managed to remain so unaffected during a global pandemic? What can we learn from Taiwan? What is daily life like? This article aims to answer all these questions and find the secret to Taiwan’s success.


Arriving in Taiwan

Like most other East Asian countries, Taiwan took the threat of COVID very seriously before anyone really understood it. Rumours of a mystery disease from China appeared on a University message board on the 31st of December. These were spotted by Luo Yi-jun, the deputy director for Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control, who quickly put the country on alert.

From that point onwards, Taiwan took every precaution necessary to ensure their nation’s safety. The most important of which occurred on March 19th when Taiwan’s border was closed to all foreigners. This was only a week after COVID had been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (March 11th), whilst Taiwan only had 108 cases in the country. Although the US closed their border on the very same day, they had more than 10 times as many cases as Taiwan (1,301) and the border was only closed to certain countries.

Covid in Taiwan
COVID declaration cards for arrivals to Taiwan prior to the border closing

Since March 14th, locals and a few rare foreigners that arrive in Taiwan have been required to self-quarantine for 14-days. These individuals are carefully tracked through their phones to ensure that they stay within close proximity to their accommodation. Those who disobey or stray too far receive an automated text message with a sharp reminder that they’ll receive a hefty fine unless they return. The quarantine was under effect 3 months before the UK did the same (June 8th).


Precautions in Taiwan

Once quarantine has ended, there’s very little to show that there’s anything out of place. Daily life in Taiwan has barely changed, no lockdown, no businesses shut, no curfews, or time-limits. The only changes are so minuscule that it poses no inconvenience.

Since the 31st of March, all passengers on public transport have been required to wear face masks. You’re simply not allowed on any transport without one and could be fined up to 15,000 NT$ for disobeying. For anyone who’s spent enough time in an Asian city, the site of face mask-wearing passengers isn’t anything new anyway.

Security guard at subway gates reminding everyone to wear a mask

All restaurants, bars, cinemas and shopping malls have remained open as usual. The only difference is that customers temperatures are taken before entering and might need a quick splash of disinfecting alcohol. Some establishments such as major train stations even have automatic temperature sensors, meaning you don’t even have to miss a beat. Schools are also functioning as normal, apart from having to wear masks, though the rule is pretty lax. Apart from that, there have been no other significant changes to daily life.

Disinfectant placed at the entrance of a supermarket


The Result

So, how effective have these precautions been? With the early response and the mild readjustments after, what do the numbers look like? As of the time of writing, there have been 39.2 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide. In Taiwan, there have been a total of 535 cases and only 7 deaths. Compare that to the 8.2 million cases and 222,000 deaths in the US, and you start to see how these early precautionary steps made a vital difference.

Graph of COVID cases in Taiwan source: Wikipedia

It’s also important to consider that statistics don’t always tell the full story. Taiwan may have had 535 active cases, but 447 of them were imported. These individuals were caught on arrival before they even had a chance to spread the virus through the general population. In total, only 55 cases of COVID were transmitted in Taiwan itself.


Learning From Their Mistake

Isn’t it strange that of the 15 countries with the highest number of infections, only 4 are in Asia? Considering the infection originated from China and was allowed to spread unappeased for a number of months, how has Asia come out relatively well compared to the rest of the world? Well, this isn’t the first time they have faced a virus such as this.

COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) is genetically closely related to another form of severe acute respiratory syndrome virus that first appeared in late 2002, known as SARS (SARS-CoV). According to a research paper in the Lancet, though much fewer people were infected with SARS (8098 reported cases) the mortality rate was much higher at 9.7%.

SARS had spread to 32 countries in total, though Asian countries were by far the worst affected. To put things in perspective, roughly 11 months following the first reported case of COVID-19, Taiwan has had 535 reported cases and 7 deaths. According to the WHO, during an 8-month period of the SARS outbreak, Taiwan had 671 reported cases and 84 deaths, the 3rd most of any country.

COVID in Taiwan
Mask wearing passengers on Taipei’s subway

It’s safe to say that Asia, and Taiwan in particular, has learned their lesson the hard way. Ever since these countries have been rightfully cautious of a similar situation occurring. This could also in part explain why the west didn’t take things seriously enough right from the beginning. They simply hadn’t experienced something like this before and were caught completely unprepared. During the SARS outbreak, the US and UK had 75 and 4 cases respectively, without a single death, a stark contrast to what they’re currently going through.


Taiwan Has Been Silenced

You would think that facing a worldwide threat would be the appropriate time to call a global truce. To put things aside just for a moment while we deal with a life-threatening pandemic. Surly the wellbeing of the world’s citizens is the main concern. Sadly, that isn’t the case. We, unfortunately, live in a power-hungry dick-measuring society, so even COVID must get political.

Taiwan is not a member of the WHO and has been banned from attending annual meetings since 2017. Taiwanese warnings of a potential threat have been blatantly ignored, why? Despite Taiwan having their own independent, democratic government, China still believes it is theirs. The WHO is one of many institutions that have accepted this fact. As such, they have listened to Beijing’s objection of including Taiwan.

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In the midst of this global crisis, Taiwan possibly has the most valuable voice when it comes to the control and prevention of the virus. Even so, China has had a successful influence on the WHO in silencing Taiwan. The WHO blatantly ignored warnings from Taiwanese doctors after a meeting on January 22nd. Conveniently, following a meeting China’s president, Xi Jinping, the WHO finally declared it a public health emergency of international concern.

Neither is this the first time China has dropped the ball when it comes to a potential global pandemic. They have been criticised for withholding information and their slow action to the international community, exactly as they had been for the SARS virus almost 20 years ago.


Pay the Price for Ignorance

The reason Taiwan has managed to control the outbreak so well is so painfully simple: they took it seriously from day 1. Before anyone else knew or cared to pay attention, Taiwan kept a sharp eye and took action before things could get any worse. While the countries in the west were still debating whether this was another fear-mongering threat from a faraway Asian country, Taiwan had already shut down and isolated itself.

Staying safe on the subway. Mask must be worn.

For months people regarded it as, in the words of Donald Trump, the “Chinese Virus”. Western countries never really considered it a threat, until it was too late. It was just another drama occurring in countries most people couldn’t place on a map. It was something that doesn’t affect our lives and never will, so why should we care. Now that the entire west has come to a complete standstill, now people care. This is all down to the ignorance and lax attitude of both the government and the public of a serious global pandemic.

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