Don’t forget that in January, no one knew about the virus, we had no reliable information. Totalitarian China kept all information secret (what is shocking is the case of Li Wenliang, a Chinese doctor who informed about this then unknown virus as early as December, but was labeled an ‘enemy of the state’). The World Health Organization (WHO) was informed about the spread of pneumonia due to unknown reasons in Wuhan on December 31, 2019.
On that same date, medical staff was summoned in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, to check travelers arriving directly from Wuhan for fever and possible respiratory difficulties. By January 5th, the authorities also investigated the whereabouts of all people who had been in Wuhan in the past two weeks, and showed signs of fever or symptoms of upper respiratory tract infection.
At the time, there could obviously be no test for a yet unknown virus. Which is why suspected cases were tested for 26 different viruses, including SARS, and other respiratory diseases. People showing symptoms were put in quarantine. Medical staff would visit them in their homes, and would decide if they needed to be transferred to hospitals. In the following weeks, this entire process was assessed.
On January 27th, the government decided to compare data from the National Health Insurance Service with data from the immigration services, and the register of Taiwanese citizens and foreigners. Thanks to this, the authorities were able to identify practically all people who had been in zones of risk in the past two weeks. The NHCC (the National Health Crisis Center) needed just one day to set up this system.
Thanks to careful planning and a timely response, the situation remained under control. On January 15th, two weeks before the WHO declared the epidemic a global emergency, the authorities banned the export of masks to maintain stocks. The NHCC became the coordination center that oversees the newly established Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC). Taiwan also extended for two weeks Chinese New Year celebrations at a time of greatest risks.
Hundreds of thousands of people were then traveling back and forward to China, the heart of the epidemic. Families were gathering across the country. Ministries responsible for the economy immediately offered special packages for affected economic sectors, thus the economic loss is minimal in Taiwan. The island is not burdened by bureaucracy and offers tax and other cuts to small businesses, which represent a priceless aid in such situations.
This democratic country, that organized presidential elections during the health crisis, is effectively fighting the epidemic and has significantly contained it. Residents and experts did not perceive the measures as alarming or disproportionate, not even in the first days, when the government advised to wear masks, even though at the time, there were almost no confirmed cases.
What was equally fascinating was the professional tone of the communication effort: relevant and calming. The Health Minister, Chen Shih-chung, spoke openly from the very beginning, saying that despite the success, the contagion is inevitable in the foreseeable future. What are the results today? By mid-March, there were 48 cases and one death (the patient suffered from serious medical conditions), and some patients recovered. Not a single doctor was infected. Three members of the medical staff got infected by transporting a patient brought in from another hospital who showed no visible symptoms, but was later discovered to be infected.
In early February, the authorities increased the budget allocated to vaccine research. In public transportation, and places with large crowds of people, there was virtually no one not wearing a mask. Besides,Taiwan has a long tradition of maintaining high standards in public hygiene, including public toilets in each subway station that are free, sparkling clean, and provide antibacterial gel.
Taiwan ranks among the top ten countries with the best healthcare system. This is why it is extremely unfortunate that the head of the Czech senate who was planning a visit to Taiwan in January couldn’t make it, as it could have played a high role.
Here is a typical micro situation that best describes Taiwan: when it had enough masks, it sent some as part of its humanitarian aid to China, thus to a country that denies its right to existence and threatens it with a military invasion, as the Chinese president states. Taiwan had in the past provided similar aid to Australia for free (!) during the bushfires, and to countries affected by a volcano explosion. As far as I know, the Czech government did not answer the January call to send humanitarian help to China, as the Czech Prime Minister stated the masks were needed for Czech citizens. Yet we are finding out now that this was a lie, as there are no masks for Czech citizens and medical staff.
The WHO considers Taiwan a high risk region without considering the reality on the ground. Because of political and business interests, it views it as part of China, which has serious consequences, including affecting the right to travel for citizens. The WHO has de facto blocked Taiwan from accessing any international aid because any measures must be first approved by Beijing.
There was no panic here in Taiwan, but also no exalted optimism, just a sense of being cautious. And all the measures were mostly psychological, so that people wouldn’t feel helpless. The new cases of infection in Europe and elsewhere except in Asia were caused by air travelers and could thus have been controlled. No border or gun will ever stop the virus, which is not Chinese but simply human, and thus requires a human approach and global solidarity. The Taiwanese team of the crisis team of experts made special efforts to ensure that life would continue as usual because what weakens the human body and its immunity system are panic and stress.
Take care of yourselves and be nice to each other,
Translation by Filip Noubel