In 2003, Taiwan witnessed a series of SARS outbreaks, the first and most serious of which occuring at Taipei Municipal Hoping Hospital.

Imported by a businessman returning from China, SARS appeared in Taiwan in March of that year. A month later, the first case at Hoping Hospital was confirmed as one of their laundry workers tested positive.

After a few more hospital staff showed SARS symptoms, the Taipei City Government’s SARS Emergency Response Task Force abruptly sealed the hospital on April 24. Over 1,000 staff, patients, and even their family members who were in the facility were forced to undergo a two-week collective quarantine.

The lockdown worsened the situation in the hospital and panic ensued. In two weeks, 57 medical workers and 97 patients were infected with the virus and 31 died in the hospital. One of the deaths was a patient who committed suicide.

The lockdown accounted for nearly half of Taiwan’s 346 cases, and most of the total deaths — 37 — in Taiwan due to SARS. Earlier this year, four people who lived through the lockdown filed a petition to the newly-established National Human Rights Committee, demanding a thorough investigation and compensation.

The Hoping Hospital lockdown was a subject intense controversy and media coverage at the time. The controversy reemerged in public consciousness when Chiou Shu-ti (邱淑媞), the Director of Taipei City Department of Health during the SARS outbreak, accused the Central Epidemic Command Center of mishandling the Covid-19 outbreak at Taoyuan General Hospital.

Opponents referred to the Hoping Hospital lockdown to criticize her party, the Kuomintang (KMT), the governing party of Taipei City during SARS, for causing the disaster in 2003.

Former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), then Taipei Mayor, defended the lockdown, saying that the city government followed the central government’s decision to seal the hospital.

The President of the Legislative Yuan Yu Shyi-kun (游錫堃), then Premier, refuted what Ma said and told the press that Ma did not report to him before ordering the lockdown.

Today, 17 years later, the public still remembers the Hoping Hospital lockdown and is afraid the disaster might repeat itself at the Taoyuan hospital, where a Covid-19 cluster appeared.


Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images

Chen Shih-chung Taiwan's Minister of Health and Welfare gestures during an interview with Reuters ahead of the World Health Assembly of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland May 20, 2017.

This cluster of 15 cases started as a doctor at the hospital was infected with Covid-19 while treating a patient. A nurse, who works at the same hospital but not involved in treating the same patient, was also diagnosed with the virus. Afterwards, another doctor, three nurses, and a Vietnamese caregiver also came down with the disease.

Instead of closing the hospital, the Central Epidemic Command Center ordered a mass evacuation and relocated most patients between January 6 to 19, including cases in the cluster.

Taoyuan Mayor Cheng Wen-tsan (鄭文燦) said Taoyuan currently has 11 hospitals that accommodate patients diagnosed with Covid-19 or those who need to be isolated.

All patients discharged from the hospital, caregivers of hospitalized patients, and people living with them had to self isolate for 14 days.

The SARS experience has paved the way for Taiwan’s success in handling the Covid-19 pandemic. The government, having learned a painful lesson from the Hoping Hospital lockdown, is dealing with the cluster infection at the Taoyuan hospital cautiously in order to prevent the history from repeating itself.

READ NEXT: What Can We Learn From Taiwan’s Quarantine Experience?

TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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