Written by Abby Huang, translated by Corey Bell.
Image credit: 12.23 副總統出席「Taiwan Healthcare + 國際入口平台啟航大會」並與參加貴賓合影 by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0
Since COVID-19 began spreading across Europe in February, the name “Taiwan” leapt on to the mastheads of major news organizations. One after another, international press published reports on Taiwan’s disease prevention measures and compared them with those of their own countries.
While panic buying basic necessities and queuing to purchase face masks continue to be prevalent scenes in other countries, Taiwan adopted early preventive measures to keep the public calm. As the imported cases surged in Taiwan, the government effectively sealed off its borders from foreign travelers to prevent further spread of the coronavirus.
While the pandemic is doing its worst, the world is looking at Taiwan in a way it has never done before. This gives credence to the slogan of the Taiwan WHA Action Team (台灣世衛行動團) that “Taiwan can help.”
But in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, how exactly can Taiwan help?
Taiwan captures international attention with “advanced pandemic prevention” strategy
We called Kuan-Yu Chiang (姜冠宇), a doctor at the National Taiwan University Hospital and the President of the Taiwan Association for Global Health Diplomacy, for his insights.
“I am writing an article, and after it gets translated into English, I want to submit it to an international journal right away. This definitely has to be submitted – this is a good opportunity,” Dr. Chiang said as soon as he picked up the phone. He was planning to submit an article that offers the global community key suggestions on pandemic prevention. He hoped to pass on the expertise of Taiwan’s medical community to the world.
Dr. Chiang noted that Taiwan did not place a great deal of trust on the information emanating from the World Health Organization, hence the government has not underestimated the potency of the virus and prepared for the worst since January.
Since the first confirmed case from January 1 up until March 13, Taiwan had 50 confirmed cases, of which 20 have been released from quarantine, while the death toll remains at 1.
In regards to Taiwan’s relatively low number of cases, Health Minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中) pointed out that the key reason was the early implementation of pandemic prevention measures. After a serious case of infection was reported in China on December 17, Taiwan started implementing onboard quarantines on December 31 and established a national emergency operations center two days later.
In addition, after Taiwan discovered hidden cases of people without a [recent] travel history, authorities immediately began to track down carriers that may have spread the disease, and increased the scale of collecting and testing samples within the community.
Dr. Chiang said that “even Europe and the U.S. want to ask [Taiwan] for advice” because of the country’s effective measures.
Dr. Chiang and a team from the Kaohsiung Medical University had just concluded an online meeting with the Boston Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, a quasi-Taiwanese consulate. They had been sharing Taiwan’s experiences in pandemic prevention, including the policies on disease control in schools and hospitals, with American experts and scholars.
As noted by Dr. Chiang, the whole world now needs to draw from successful precedents of community mitigation measures for pandemic influenza. Merely relying on implementing control measures at airports or isolating tourists who had been to infected zones is already insufficient. In many countries the infection has already entered the local community. What is now being tested is the hygiene habits of the people in each region, he added.
The success of Taiwan’s pandemic prevention measures is built on hygiene education, Dr. Chiang said. There is a marked difference between Taiwanese people’s discipline in putting on face masks and washing their hands regularly and that of European countries. In addition, Taiwan’s government made a prompt decision to prepare policies for bringing back and quarantining those who exhibited symptoms in Wuhan and Japan, allowing no gaps to develop in its pandemic prevention measures.
Taiwan’s universal health insurance system allows for information to be integrated on a unitary platform, according to Dr. Chiang. Not only is Taiwan able to implement real-name registration for face mask purchases and control the provision of supplies, but it can also track the travel history of those who have been to infected zones.
He stated that while the U.S. standards of medical care are high, health insurance is extremely expensive, its territory is vast, and each state’s administrative systems are different, meaning that influenza management efforts are not fully synchronized.
Could Taiwan return to the WHO on the grounds of its success in disease prevention?
What Taiwan is able to do “is share its experiences,” Dr. Chiang said. This is in fact one of the functions of the WHA, an annual forum held by WHO in Geneva. Since Taiwan is banned from the assembly, it has not been able to share these experiences with the international community. Due to political pressure from China, Taiwan has not been invited to the assembly since 2017.
This year’s assembly is scheduled to begin on May 17. However, Dr. Chiang believes that if Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus remains the director-general of the WHO, and if the financially struggling organization still depends on its biggest fund provider, then Taiwan’s chance of being able to attend the assembly will be small.
Chuang Jen-hsiang (莊人祥), deputy director-general of Taiwan’s Center for Disease Control (CDC), indicated that Taiwan’s accomplishments in pandemic prevention could prompt other countries to put in a good word for Taiwan at the WHO. But at the end of the day, WHO is not apolitical. Whether Taiwan will be allowed to participate depends on more than its successes in fighting the coronavirus outbreak.
However, “pandemic prevention diplomacy” doesn’t necessarily require joining the WHO, Chuang said. Taiwan can continue to use different means to “make friends” with other countries, and it has in fact received many requests to share its expertise.
Along with the Vice Premier of Taiwan’s Executive Yuan, Chen Chi-Mai (陳其邁), Chuang participated in a video conference with professors from Stanford University, sharing information on how Taiwan is using “big data disease prevention” to reduce the risk of contagion. Teams from other countries also want to know about Taiwan’s techniques for virus nucleic acid testing.
Health Minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中) said that other countries wanted to know whether Taiwan could provide the standards and disease prevention policies for them to study. But each nation’s policies will be influenced by its distinctive customs, public sentiments, economic networks, and diplomatic alliances, Chen said, and disease prevention policies will need to be formulated in light of local conditions.
Nonetheless, Taiwan can pass on information about some of the decisions it made at different junctures.
The pandemic brings an opportunity: How Taiwan can be once again made visible to the world?
In early March this year, Dr. Ashley Bloomfield, chief executive of the New Zealand Ministry of Health, praised Taiwan’s pandemic prevention measures.
Dr. Bloomfield said two countries — Singapore and Taiwan — had shown a strong ability to trace and quarantine those who had interacted with confirmed cases, that this is an effective way to avoid clusters of infection, and that New Zealand should move in this direction.
New Zealand has only been slightly impacted by the virus. Since the first case was confirmed on February 28, it has had 20 cases and no fatalities. Nonetheless, the war against the COVID-19 pandemic is one of attrition, and the example New Zealand is learning from is none other than Taiwan.
A diplomatic officer said Taiwan’s successes have been reported by not only foreign media but also by foreign embassies and missions based in Taiwan.
“These lessons are more important than material assistance,” he said. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not specialize in healthcare. Our specialty is in promotion. The first step should be telling everyone we are pretty good.”
The most important step is to use this opportunity to tell the world about Taiwan’s exclusion from the WHO and China’s suppression of Taiwan, he said, and allow the world to once again see Taiwan as something distinct from China.
Abby Huang is a News Editor at The News Lens. 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.