How the COVID-19 epidemic was kept under control in Taiwan, Part 3.

One more note regarding certain issues. It was easier for the Taiwanese authorities to act because the public was eager to follow the measures rapidly put in place by the state. Most Taiwanese experienced SARS, and remember those hard times pretty well. The new epidemic brought back a sense of benevolent solidarity and social harmony. People talk more about mutual aid and social support than about the economy. Nothing is more important in life than friendship. Taiwan has massively invested in medical and scientific research, as it has been facing the danger of biological warfare with China in the past decades. The research teams immediately worked to develop a COVID-19 test to allow for massive testing. The goal was a quick test with results available in 20 minutes.

Taiwan tried to avoid confinement. This is because in its history (during the Japanese occupation and the period of the White Terror), the state abused its power in the name of “safety”. The authorities know that they cannot reduce citizens to ‘carriers of the virus’, and take away their human dignity, curb freedom, or harm institutions as it all leads to more uncertainty. Globalisation causes problems that Taiwan has anticipated: it doesn’t channel all its production to export. When production of certain goods is concentrated in one country, it leads to terrible situations, as we have discovered. This is precisely why we are now dependent on medical equipment and drugs from China or India because production lines were moved there to take advantage of the cheap labour force. This is a short-coming of the market economy. Taiwan learnt to rely on itself. It supports small, family business, local farmers and diversity, and not monopoles and monoculture. This means it can survive in its regional context. We, on the other hand, are wondering how to survive. As a country with a developed industry, we are used to having all sorts of food products displayed each season on the shelves of our supermarkets. A few weeks ago, reality showed us it doesn’t have to be like that, that’s so absurd. The coronavirus turns into reality scenarios that seem to be devoid of any meaning.

In the case of quarantine, the crisis center provides recommendations, including some given by a team of psychologists, that provide a framework: genes determine the level of immunity, each individual has a different level of tolerance for psychological and physical exhaustion. It is easier to offer help and to share experiences thanks to the social fabric that can also be found via Buddhist temples operating as community centers (unlike China, Taiwan enjoys religious freedom and freedom of speech). What is essential is to maintain a structure and a sense of order every day. Not to burden the mind with planning (the only one doing planning is the virus), and not focus on material things. The backbone of the day is the meal taken in common with others at a regular time, and a regular program based on the age of the different family members. Children sense everything, it is thus important to listen with empathy, to explain, and to consider the change as an opportunity to review life values, and strengthen family ties. For older children, school acts as an anchor, so does the learning of a foreign language, as Japanese in the case of Taiwan. For younger children, it is games and adventures imagined together (they can illustrate fairy tales in the process). For mental hygiene, it is healthy to maintain some alone time (yoga and meditation are most recommended), and alternate with socializing. Maintaining regular activities (sprayed over different time segments) is important for mental hygiene: the mind focuses on the task of the moment, there is no space for anxiety that can lead to depression. It is important to stay away from news, to connect with friends, to engage in humor and social solidarity, and online communication (for children whose families cannot afford computers, the authorities provide support for online schooling). Keeping a diary helps to structure the day, as attention helps to focus on the present. In Taiwan one can sense the Japanese tradition of carefully observing the changes of nature. If individuals prone to conflicts experience frustration, stress, and aggression, it is important to prevent domestic violence, and to protect the most vulnerable members of the family, the children, and to seek expert advice.

Taiwan reacts to reality. Factories increased the production of masks according to the new demand. At the same time, Taiwan pays special attention to countries taking advantage of the situation, and linking foreign aid to political demands, influence or propaganda. It also monitors the different reactions in Europe. China and Russia do not act out of charity, they act out of selfishness, as authoritarian states do, and fill in a blank left empty by the European Union. They want to increase their political influence and weaken Europe as it faces a huge challenge. The coronavirus acts as a mirror for all. The humanitarian and economic crisis caused by the virus is so big that it can challenge and threaten the legitimacy of any political and economic system. The problem is not with the virus but with politicians. Though it is not visible, we are getting closer to the totalitarian model of the Chinese state, including through contracts with telecommunication companies. Because the government will be able to follow the movement of every person.

In Italy and Australia, people are increasingly doubting the benefit of Chinese aid as the decontamination suits, and disinfection products turn out to be useless (in February we heard of the scandal around Chinese companies selling used masks). In Spain, the complaints about the Chinese tests for COVID-19 also demonstrate that China doesn’t care about people infected by the virus. The act of charity comes with strings attached: the recipients of Chinese aid will not criticize violations of human rights in China, and will praise the Chinese leader as a wise man. Certain managers and heads of state are ready to give up freedom, dignity, self-respect (The Chinese leadership praised the Serbian leader for kissing the Chinese flag). I have nothing against gratefulness for help provided in hard times. But it has to be expressed to all, to each country in the same way. And it cannot lead to a situation in which it becomes impossible to say or write the truth about the reality of the situation in China. I will never forget my time in Taiwan in January, and the fact that this is all because of the behaviour of the Chinese leadership. Chinese officials lied for a very long time, as early as December they were hiding information about the epidemic, thus helping the propagation of the virus outside of China. It is necessary to remind us the sense of responsibility and ethos that are inseparable from the fact that we are alive and share the same planet with all. Even when the question of our survival is at stake, we shouldn’t give away our freedom and dignity.

Radka Denemarková

Translated by Filip Noubel