What you need to know
Taiwan is just off the southeastern coast of China, and there is a huge amount of people traveling back and forth. But, as of March 13, Taiwan has only reported 50 confirmed infections. How did Taiwan manage to contain the spread of the coronavirus?
Written by Amy Liu
This is a special episode of WorldView, a weekly video explainer on international news. Full screen viewing is recommended.
The coronavirus outbreak, which is now a global pandemic, is making headlines, causing anxieties, and restricting people to their homes. While countries are scrambling to come up with a plan, Taiwan is one of the most often-mentioned references.
While Taiwan is not a member of WHO, it has been known for its advanced medical services and an affordable healthcare system. 17 years ago, the island withstood the outbreak of SARS, and now, it is standing strong in the storm of COVID-19.
Taiwan is just off the southeastern coast of China, and there is a huge amount of people traveling back and forth. But at the time of taping, on March 13, Taiwan had only reported 50 confirmed infections. So how did Taiwan manage to contain the spread of the coronavirus? We have been telling stories about different parts of the world on our show, but for this episode, we are going to talk about the battle for our beloved home, Taiwan.
An Experienced Government
In 2003, the outbreak of SARS, which is also caused by coronavirus, triggered tremendous fear in the whole country. It infected more than 300 people and took away 73 lives. The experience left a scar in our hearts but also taught us a valuable lesson.
The government became more vigilant than ever before. After Taiwan got off the list of SARS infected area, existing laws were updated to include new regulations for bio-lab management to avoid lab infection. And later on, many protocols and equipment set up for SARS were used as parts of general disease prevention, such as quarantining infected patients and their close contacts and having infrared thermometer at the airport to monitor health conditions of the travelers. All of these come in handy for fighting the novel coronavirus.
It’s also worthy to note the performance of the Taiwanese government this time around. After COVID-19 broke out in Wuhan, China, Taiwanese officials soon formed the Central Epidemic Command Center, which played a pivotal role in coordinating swift responses across government agencies. One example would be Taiwan’s quick decision to ban flights from Wuhan and enhance health inspections at the border, even before a single case was confirmed. While monitoring the outbreak around the clock and taking pre-emptive actions, the CECC also kept citizens well-informed on the possible symptoms, proper precautions, and the latest situation with daily press conferences — sometimes twice a day.
As a leading figure in the battle, Health Minister and CECC Chief Chen Shih-Chung, has been praised by the public for his performance. Perhaps out of sheer luck, a number of key central government officials also happen to be public health professionals. So, it could be argued that the administration has an edge in dealing with the situation. While the CECC focused on the frontlines, the Executive Yuan, the highest executive body of Taiwan, works with other issues that stemmed from the epidemic. Solving the shortage of surgical masks is a well-known example. In order to secure supply for future medical use and stabilize the price, the government banned the export of face masks and took over its production as well as distribution. Right now, while surgical masks are out-of-stock in most countries, Taiwan’s surgical mask production capacity is close to reaching 10 million a day, which means everyone will be able to purchase 5 per person per week, and more masks will be rationed to the hospitals and clinics.
IT Solutions and the Genius Minister
Information technology is another great force in this fight. At the beginning of the outbreak, Taiwanese government merged the national health insurance database with the immigration and customs database so that they can keep track of people’s health condition and travel history at the same time. The big data has provided crucial information for policy-making and helped raise the public awareness.
Technology also helped when everyone was worried about whether or not the masks will be distributed fairly. At first, the distribution system took a lot of heat from communities due to limited stock and the long waiting queue.
One Taiwanese programer, therefore, created a online mask supply tracking map, to make things easier for his friends and family. This individual project instantly went viral. Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s Digital Minister, soon reached out to the programer and his team.
Within a matter of days, local IT talents and the government turned this idea into a national real-time map for people to track how many masks are still in stock, and where. Tang’s decisive action has earned herself the nickname “genius minister” from Japanese media.
At this moment, considering most people with a full-time job don’t have the time to buy masks from local drugstores, the government has begun testing an online mask purchasing system, which should reduce the hassle in getting one.
While containing the outbreak is crucial, finding a way to treat the disease is equally important. At this point, there is no vaccine or a specific treatment for COVID-19 yet, but the WHO has announced that Remdesivir, an experimental drug, may be effective in treating the disease.
Taiwan’s medical professionals now have the ability to synthesize Remdesivir on their own. A team from National Health Research Institutes announced in late February that they have successfully synthesized Remdesivir at the gram-level. That doesn’t mean the drug is widely available right away, but this is a key step in making a potential solution viable.
As the demand to test potential patients continues to rise, the Academia Sinica announced in early March that it has successfully developed antibodies for COVID-19 virus test in only 19 days, two months ahead of schedule. Theoretically, this milestone means the time it takes to confirm an infection will be reduced from four hours to just 15 to 20 minutes. The virus test still has to wait for months of human testing and FDA evaluation before mass production, but this is obviously great news for Taiwan.
But, Challenges Remain...
So far into the outbreak, the number of infected cases in Taiwan is significantly lower than China and other neighboring countries like Japan and South Korea, even when considering the difference in population sizes.
However, there are still obstacles that need to be tackled on the path to victory. First and foremost, misinformation and disinformation have, from time to time, created unnecessary public panic in Taiwan. For example, in early February, a woman who sells sanitary supplies put out a rumor saying that there will soon be a shortage in toilet paper supply because the material for sanitary products are all being used for face mask production. Even though the two products are not made with the same material, Taiwanese rushed into stores and bought every last toilet paper roll on the shelf. The government immediately cleared up the rumor online with a rare butt joke — supposedly by the Premier himself — while strictly enforcing laws to punish the spread of disinformation. At the same time, however, there are still many unchecked messages popping up on social media that may stir up emotions.
Secondly, there are still blind spots that need extra attention. The 32nd infected case is an undocumented caregiver from Indonesia who used to work for an infected patient. Due to a lack of her immigration information, it took the authority quite some time to track her down for inspection and quarantine. This incident sparked a controversy. Should the government crackdown illegal migrant workers at this unusual time? In the end, the government decided to focus on fighting the virus first and include the illegal migrant workers as a part of the pandemic control.
Taiwan just went through a dramatic presidential election in January that saw generational conflicts and division in the society, but as COVID-19 hits, the administration, the opposition, and members of public from different political affiliation are, in one way or another, united in this fight. If Taiwan serves as a success story to the world, the men and women in healthcare, who were already working incredibly long hours and under great pressure even before all of this began, deserve a most sincere thank you.
Producer/Host: Han Way Lee
Reporters/Story Editors: TJ Ding, Patrick Peng, Han Way Lee, Louis Lo, Amy Liu
Post-production：Sid Zheng, Cheng-Hao Kao
TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)