TAIWAN HASN’T NEEDED THE W.H.O. TO FIGHT COVID-19; MAYBE THE W.H.O. NEEDS TAIWAN?

Written by Shu-Hua Shih, translated by Corey Lee Bell.

Image credit: Taipei, Taiwan by Merryly/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Only a narrow strait lies between Taiwan and China, and cultural and economic interactions between the two are unceasing and abundant. On these grounds, many across the globe assumed that Taiwan would be the place outside China that is most seriously impacted by the COVID-19 virus. Yet as of 16 March, Taiwan has only had 67 reported cases, of which only one has been fatal. Following the explosion of cases across the world – including developed regions such as South Korea (8,736/75), Japan (845/27), the United States (4,102/71) and Europe (Italy = 24,747/1,804) – people have started to pay attention to Taiwan’s efficacy in controlling the pandemic and preventing its proliferation. How was Taiwan able to do this?   

As a result of pressure from China, Taiwan has long been excluded from participating in the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other international forums such as the United Nations. It has largely stood alone in its efforts to prevent pandemics, and has found it difficult to promptly acquire information from external sources. As a result, it can only rely on the collective resources and efforts of its 23 million citizens.

However, Taiwan had the experience of dealing with the SARS epidemic in 2003, and the current Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration is well aware that in the case of epidemics originating from across the Taiwan Strait, information that emanates from China cannot be relied upon. Because of this, government departments were on the alert as soon as the outbreak started, and began making arrangements prior to most other states. Upon the outbreak of the epidemic, the government immediately implemented immigration controls and screenings – all before the WHO suggested these measures. The policy of restricting the export of face masks was implemented as early as Jan 24, and the government imposed a uniform levy which stabilised prices, and immediately invested capital and human resources into developing production lines for face masks. In the midst of a global supply crises, in Taiwan each mask cost only NTD $5 (roughly GDB 13p, or US 17 cents), and each of its residents has access to supplies. Over the most important vacation of the year for locals – the lunar new year holiday – communication across departments did not rest for a moment so as to keep the virus out of Taiwan and quell the concerns of residents. Straight away, the government began studying methods to quickly screen for the pandemic, develop antiviral drugs, and set in motion research and development on vaccinations.        

Many pro-China voices within Taiwan criticised each of the government’s measures. Some, such as the former President Ma Ying-jeou, said that restricting the export of face masks is inhumane. Certain celebrities and artists who had for a long time profited from the Chinese market similarly criticised the government’s measures to contain the virus. Others, such as doctors and entrepreneurs who had investments in China, expressed hopes that the government would assist large numbers of Taiwanese isolated within Wuhan to return. Yet the very first plane to return contained a number of people not on the name list of Taiwanese residents, and one was diagnosed with COVID-19. This made Taiwanese acutely aware that although our medical resources are plentiful, we could not hope to cope with a sudden deluge of patients infected with the virus. In the end these voices only served to bring together the nation’s medical profession to release a joint statement supporting pandemic prevention, which was approved by more than 1/3 of the island’s 300 thousand medical professionals within 2 days. They also prompted public approval and support for the government’s measures, which was instrumental for ameliorating panic and increasing solidarity in getting behind pandemic prevention efforts.  

Taiwan’s universal medical insurance system does put the squeeze on the medical profession over the long term. Yet the speed, quality and value of its medical services are second to none. Medical care is accessible and screening processes are prompt and rapid. The system has also proved capable of quickly tracing infected persons and testing deceased persons originally suspected of succumbing to influenza for COVID-19. This facilitates efforts to track down those that are spreading the disease. By combining the information linked to medical insurance cards and cloud data, authorities have been able to track the travel history of infected persons in order to prevent the virus from spreading. By implementing a real-name registration system for facial masks, authorities have prevented the problem of a small minority of people monopolising the supply of essential medical resources.      

While it is very difficult to completely prevent a virus from spreading, Taiwan has effectively managed to control the scope of the epidemic, and is using this period to prepare production lines for necessary materials, initiate research and development on rapid screening measures and vaccinations, and mobilise human resources. It is well prepared for a global pandemic of an even greater scale.  

In conclusion, Taiwan’s success in preventing the spread of COVID-19 has come from not placing complete trust in information initially released from China, making arrangements for pandemic prevention at the earliest opportunity, promoting national solidarity behind efforts to fight the virus, opening communication lines across departments and organisations, and relying on the selfless dedication of medical professionals on the frontline. Although Taiwan’s results have by no means been perfect, it has experiences of success that other nations – and perhaps even the WHO itself – could learn from.      

Shu-Hua Shih is a representative of the Taiwan National Dental Association, a political activist, and a media commentator on political, social and medical issues. He is a regular guest on Taiwanese talk shows, and has appeared on a number of programs including TTV News, EBC Taiwan, News Wawawa, Era Money. He regularly commentates on medical and other contemporary issues on: https://www.facebook.com/盾牌牙醫史書華-397483190392866/ . This article is part of special issue on the WHO and Taiwan.

Along with Taiwan Insight’s special issue on Taiwan and WHO, we also introduce a timely special issue of the International Journal of Taiwan Studies (IJTS) on “Taiwan, Public Diplomacy, and WHA”. Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO and the WHA is now a major cause for concern. To understand the reasons, consequences and possible remedies for Taiwan’s exclusion, one has to adopt a multi-disciplinary perspective. In this IJTS’s special issue, we have brought together political scientists, IR specialists, communication scholars, and health experts. For more details, please visit here.

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