Spanish reporter residing in Taiwan, Gonzalo Bendito, shares his experience.
Why while the situation gets out of hand in many countries such as the US, Italy or Spain, in Taiwan there are hardly 420 cases and life goes on as before? This question has a very simple answer: taking preventive measures on time. This nation of 23 million people can give a master class to the entire world on how to fight a pandemic.
It was during the last Chinese New Year holidays, in mid-January, when the word “coronavirus” began to spread and overshadow all other types of news in the media, social networks, and conversations of people on the street. The first time I heard about this new virus, I was in the hammock of a bungalow in North Sumatra, Indonesia. Hearing news of a highly contagious and deadly virus that originated in China and was spreading to other neighboring countries was not the best news. The first question that came to mind was… what will happen to Taiwan? This island, a completely independent nation from China, with its own identity, government, passport, army and currency, is just over 100 kilometers from the shores of the Asian giant. In fact, it is due to this proximity, and the large number of travelers who fly between the two countries on a daily basis, that experts pointed to Taiwan as the second country with the highest risk in the face of this epidemic originating in Wuhan. I was wondering if I should return to Taiwan after my vacation, or if the situation would become so serious that it would force me to return to Spain, to which my brother, who was with me, replied, “ Let’s see what happens in Taiwan. Spain might be in a worse situation” I listened to my older brother, and at the end of my vacation, I returned to Taiwan, confident that its government and public health system, the most efficient in the world according to many studies, would do a good job of keeping this virus at bay and the population safe.
When I arrived to Taoyuan airport, the security measures were more rigorous, with longer queues than normal. In addition, everyone was wearing a mask, not only inside the airport, but also in all kinds of public places such as supermarkets, shopping malls, subway, buses, among others. It may be the culture of wearing a mask when you are sick or do not want to get infected, which has been key for Taiwan to have such a low rate of infection. In addition, numerous temperature controls at the entrance of many establishments have also helped keep infections below half a thousand.
But, in order to understand and praise the magnificent management that Taiwan, unlike Spain, has made in this crisis, it is necessary to go back to the end of 2019, when the first chess pieces began to move.
What made Taiwan act so fast?
When the Chinese government announced to the World Health Organization (WHO) about a SARS-like virus of unknown origin in Wuhan City on December 31, 2019, the government of Taiwan started implementing flight restrictions that same day, to and from the Chinese city, and to monitor all passengers who had recently arrived from that destination and other cities of China. These measures were taken immediately for various reasons. One of these is Taiwan’s lack of confidence and suspicion of the Chinese Communist Party for its lack of transparency. This sentiment has been compounded in recent months with the Hong Kong riots and a landslide victory for the pro-Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party, led by President Tsai Ing-wen, in the past January 11 general election, thus renewing another mandate. Another reason why Taiwan has been so cautious from the first moment is because of its isolation and exclusion in many types of international organizations, influenced by the economic and political weight of China, which sees Taiwan as one more province of its own territory and not as an independent state. This means that Taiwan cannot be part of the World Health Organization. Both this United Nations-owned organization and its director-general, Tedros Adhanom, have been heavily criticized by Taiwan and numerous high-ranking politicians in the international community for unfairly excluding 23 million people. It is this isolation that prevents Taiwan from receiving and sharing information with the WHO. As a consequence, the Tsai Ing-wen government sent two doctors to Ground Zero in Wuhan in early January to investigate further about this unknown virus, concluding and announcing that the virus could be transmitted from human to human, two weeks before WHO released this information. Apart from this feeling of mistrust, another key factor for Taiwan’s rapid response and preparedness is its past experience with SARS in 2003, which infected hundreds of citizens in the country, causing 70 deaths, the third highest death rate in the world. This not only makes the country’s authorities fear that history will repeat itself again, but thanks to this past crisis, airports and other public establishments already had installed temperature measurement machines, as well as one-month stock of sanitary material to fight epidemics in all public hospitals on the island, the latter legally required.
When was the first case detected?
On January 21, 2020, three weeks after the alarm was raised for a possible epidemic expansion of the coronavirus, the first case was detected in Taiwan, a 50-year-old woman who had been working as a teacher in Wuhan. A day earlier, on January 20, the government activated the Center for Disease Control, which has been managing this crisis ever since. On January 28, Taiwan registered its first local contagion. Regarding deaths, the first occurred on February 16, a 61-year-old man with previous pathologies; and the second more than a month later, an octogenarian on March 20. To date, there have only been six deaths, two of them from Taiwanese who had traveled to Spain. With 420 infections and a death toll that does not exceed a dozen, it is impossible to ask what has Taiwan done that other countries have not done? Why in a country with 23 million people densely spread over a third of a territory of the extension of Catalonia does record such low figures, while in countries like the US there are almost 800 thousand sick and 40 thousand deceased?
Taiwan’s recipe: experience, caution, speed and transparency
There have been many measures that Taiwan has taken to become the country with the lowest number of infected and deaths per million inhabitants. There are only 18 contagions for every million people, compared to 4249 in Spain, 2306 in the USA, or surprisingly, and of which nobody speaks, Belgium, with 3322.
One of the first decisions made was to suspend classes for all students from February 2 to 25, although the academies were able to continue their activity, something necessary for many parents who need someone to take care of their children while they work. In addition, a large database was created, which they call Big Data, where the entire history of all people from abroad, where they have been, and their state of health, are shared; and this information can be accessed at all times by all doctors in the country’s hospitals. Likewise, an application was created where all users can search the detailed information of each positive patient.
Another measure was the production and rationing of masks. After first panicking in China and its neighboring countries where the first exported cases occurred, the compulsive purchase of masks soon left all supermarkets, pharmacies and other commercial establishments out of stock. What did the Taiwan government do? They stopped exports, multiplied his national production to supply his population, and asked the army to help in this task. Through a rationing system, each citizen, both nationals and foreigners, has access to a certain number of masks, at normal prices. Those with their identity card ending in odd numbers can shop on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; those with in even numbers can be buy on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays; and everyone on Sundays. To make this task easier, there is also an application that shows users in real time and with a map in which establishments there are masks, and in which they have been sold out.
And…what about people coming from outside? Do they go through any kind of quarantine? Are the borders closed? As the crisis has been developing and deepening in other countries, Taiwan has had to adjust its precautionary measures, isolation and restrictions at its ports of entry to the country, both by sea and by air. Starting with the suspension of flights from China, and later from other countries such as Iran or Italy. This type of restrictions on travelers from certain destinations also caused a series of controversies, such as that of the Philippines, which prohibited the entry to the country of citizens from Taiwan since this territory is considered part of China, even though Taiwan is not a country of risk. This angered the authorities, who asked this measure to be repealed, since Taiwan is NOT China.
Until March 19, all those arriving in Taiwan from abroad had to pass a mandatory 2-week quarantine. It was from this date, after seeing a considerable increase in imported cases, when the government decided to prohibit the entry of anyone except nationals, diplomatic personnel and foreigners with ARC (Alien Resident Card, a type of identity document for expats who work legally in the country ). Those in quarantine are covered with the expenses of accommodation, food and medical supplies; and they are regularly visited and monitored by government officials who make sure that everyone is strictly quarantined. These people are also tested for COVID-19, thus giving the positive data that has brought the figure to 420. These people, being confined, do not pose a risk of transmission to the healthy population, that is why that the number of infected in Taiwan is so low, and there are no local transmissions. In addition, the Taiwanese also do not want to risk being penalized with fines of around 30 thousand USD.
What is the situation now?
Since I returned from my trip in Indonesia, until now, I have been able to see how the domino effect of this global pandemic is making all western countries bleed economically and socially. Those of us who live in Taiwan feel very lucky because it is like “living in a bubble”, isolated from what is happening in the world. Here we all know how much we owe the government for its rapid and effective crisis management, which has set an example for the entire world. There are certain things that have changed, such as the widespread use and at most times of masks, some impulsive buyers in supermarkets, where they ran out of toilet paper, following the trend of the West; and the implementation of social distancing, but quite light compared to the rest of the world. The majority of businesses are still open, with exceptions such as bars and clubs, or other businesses directly related to tourism. Life here is relatively normal, children go to school, adults to work, the elderly to the parks and community pools, people eat in restaurants, go out to take the dog for a walk and eat an ice cream, and so, the same as life was before 2020. We simply hope that everything continues like this and we can enjoy our lives always in a healthy and safe way.