Written by Ratih Kabinawa.
A country’s success in controlling the spread of COVID-19 should not only be measured by the low number of infected cases or deaths but also on how the state can sustain a safe and lively environment for all human beings that reside within its borders. Taiwan is a case in point.
After effectively slowing down the spread of the virus, with 429 confirmed cases and six deaths as of Monday (27/04), Taiwan continues to show the world how to provide health and safety for all during the crisis. Unlike states whose ‘draconian’ measures to control the virus have sacrificed the livelihoods and liberties of their populations, Taiwan has been quite benevolent in the way it has treated its people – both citizens and temporary migrants – during the pandemic.
Like many other states engaged with the global economy, Taiwan welcomes temporary migrants, such as international students and foreign workers to fuel its economic growth and to promote Taiwan’s values and norms abroad. International students and migrant workers make up about 5% of Taiwan’s total population. They help bolster the education sector and economy in an increasingly ageing society.
In a time of crisis, such as during a pandemic, temporary migrants are typically subject to discriminatory policies and are considered second-class members of society. The government will likely prioritise the health and safety of its citizens instead of temporary migrants, who stay for a short period either for studying or working. In Australia, for example, the prime minister, as well as the premiers of each state, have mentioned several times in their public statements on COVID-19, the need to give top priority to Australian citizens and permanent residents.
Taiwan has taken a different approach. Taipei’s exclusion from the WHO has encouraged the government to actively advocating ‘health for all,’ both in national and global contexts. The government ensures and encourages every member of its community, including the international students and foreign workers, to be incorporated in the nation’s prevention efforts to control the virus. After an undocumented migrant worker tested positive for the virus in late February, the government launched a campaign for hygiene measures among migrant workers.
Together with local non-governmental organisations that work on migrant related issues, the Taiwanese government circulated the COVID-19 prevention pamphlets in Indonesian and other languages to reach the migrant workers. The Taiwanese government has also taken a relatively careful approach in dealing with undocumented migrant workers as a way to prevent the spread of the virus. The government applies three-months amnesty for undocumented migrant workers who have overstayed their visas.
Despite its exclusion from the global health governance system, Taiwan has been able to manage supply and demand of people’s essential needs. While many countries have experienced a shortage of face masks due to the growing number of COVID-19 cases, Taiwan has been donating masks to its allies. The country has been sending millions of face masks to the US, Australia, European and the New Southbound countries. Taiwan’s mask diplomacy is another living proof of Taiwan’s benevolent approach in bringing ‘health for all.’
Furthermore, citizens and temporary migrants alike also have equal access to face masks. International students, for example, are allowed to buy masks with their National Health Insurance (NHI) card, following the rationing policy on face masks. The Taiwanese government has also developed a novel invention of a face mask vending machine to make the masks more accessible to the public while also sticking to the rationing policy. People with NHI card can purchase masks without the need for queuing in the pharmacy.
As the number of infected cases increases each day, many countries are closing their borders and encouraging people to stay at home. Following the isolation, are a lot of reports on panic buying in Australia and some European countries. This situation has been quite different in Taiwan.
The country has few reported cases of people hoarding toilet papers or foods. All sections of the community in Taiwan work cooperatively with the government to ensure the supply of basic needs is fulfilled. Additionally, Taiwan has recorded only a small number of violent incidents and discrimination against foreign nationals during the pandemic.
Taiwan has proven that its vibrant democracy can survive during the COVID-19 pandemic. Taiwan’s respect for diversity is consistent; it has always welcomed and supported its people — citizens and temporary immigrants — in good and bad times. The Taiwanese government gives top priority to the dignity of human beings, which is a lesson that other democratic countries should learn from Taiwan.
Ratih Kabinawa is a PhD student in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Western Australia. Her main academic interest is in transnational politics and Taiwan’s foreign policy in Southeast Asia. She tweets @RatihKabinawa. This article is part of special issue on Covid-19.