Epidemics, National Consciousness and the Existential Value of Taiwan

Written by Mary Wang.

Image credit: 03.20 總統視察衛生福利部疾病管制署檢驗及疫苗研製中心-嚴重特殊傳染性肺炎檢驗實驗室by 總統府/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

Reading Nobel Prize winner Albert Camus’ canonical novel, The Plague at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak led me to meditate on Taiwan’s current situation and the possibilities for its future. As the COVID-19 crisis has been unfolding, paralysing the whole globe, I found that Camus’ novel — which focuses on the experience of witnessing the state of complete chaos related to a plague outbreak in the Algerian city of Oran — allows for meaningful comparison between the situation described in Camus’ short novel and the experience of Taiwan as an estranged member of the international community.

Throughout The Plague, the character’s reactions and responses to the disease, and their attitude towards issues of life and death, encourage us to think about the value and meaning of life, as the characters dedicate themselves to others and make self-sacrifices for the greater good. Though Camus once denied it, some critics still argue that The Plague is a work of Existentialism: a philosophical doctrine that profoundly believes personal and subjective experiences shape the meaning of human existence.

At this point, I would like to compare the character’s circumstances in The Plague to those currently facing Taiwan. Camus vividly sketches how the characters come to reconsider and re-understand what it means to live during the plague. Similarly, we Taiwanese, who are at present weathering the storm of COVID-19, can contemplate the various meanings of “being Taiwanese,” since the question of Taiwan’s nationhood remains in limbo. During this pandemic, Taiwan’s handling and control of COVID-19 has not only enabled it to receive a great deal of international attention, but more crucially, it has allowed Taiwan to discover its “existential value” concerning the world. For example, after a boost in the production of Taiwanese facemasks, the Taiwanese government has generously offered millions of facemasks, and other medical supplies, to European countries and America. In doing so, Taiwan has demonstrated the best way to fight against COVID-19 is to focus on the promotion of universal values of freedom, democracy, diversity and humanitarianism. These values are held in opposition to the authoritarian values of Communist China and in particular its unitary nationalist agenda.

If we re-examine the history of Taiwan, we can see that this scourge can potentially facilitate the consolidation of Taiwanese national consciousness. One of the reasons for this is that people become aware of the distinctions between themselves and the previous occupying foreign regimes in Taiwan. In fact, for an extended period, the notion of Taiwan — and the identity of being Taiwanese — has been formed through the concept of “alterity.” In other words, Taiwan, as a nation, has not been admitted to the international community. Moreover, we frequently get a conceptual understanding of “nation” as “the self” by recognising the differences between ourselves and the resistant “otherness” of various nations. In this respect, the outbreak of COVID-19 has brought Taiwanese to acknowledge the value of their existence. This is because Taiwan has done impressive work on preventing the spread of the virus. There are currently fewer than 400 confirmed cases in Taiwan, a much lower figure than equivalent figures in other countries.

In 2015, the former Taiwanese Director of Health, Lai Jinxiang published a book, Infectious Disease and the 228 Incident, which discusses a little-known, neglected and hidden history in Taiwan. It states that the cause of the February 28 Incident was closely related to the outbreak of an epidemic beginning when the Kuomintang took over Taiwan in 1947. In fact, during the Japanese occupation, as the Japanese government had worked to develop the public health system of Taiwan considerably, three major diseases — smallpox, plague and cholera — had been well-controlled and even suppressed. However, after the surrender of Japan at the end of the Second World War, and the assumption of control by the Kuomintang, the government failed to implement effective control over coastal ports, resulting in the resurgence of these three major diseases. Under these circumstances, as the health system collapsed, public discontent was aroused, which led directly to the tragedy of the February 28 Incident.

If we assume the February 28 Incident was caused by an epidemic, along with Taiwan’s development of national consciousness — a political subjectivity that understands the differences between the Taiwanese and the Chinese — then the present situation of COVID-19 guides us to define and redefine the meaning of being Taiwanese. During this epidemic, the democracy and transparency of Taiwan has been displayed in stark contrast to China’s supremacist attitude. Taiwan, which has been consistently oppressed and suppressed by China in the international arena — by being unfairly excluded from international organisations and losing numerous diplomatic allies — is now growing stronger as the whole world observes its exemplary response to the virus.

Recently, Taiwan has received positive responses from various countries after donating surgical masks to the European Union and America. For instance, the presidential advisory body of The United States National Security Council (NSC) tweeted: “We thank the people of Taiwan for their generous support and collaboration as we continue our fight against the Coronavirus.” Furthermore, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, also stated on her personal Twitter: “The European Union thanks Taiwan for its donation of 5.6 million masks to help fight the Coronavirus. We really appreciate the gesture of solidarity.” As Leyen added, “This global virus outbreak requires international solidarity and cooperation.” Consequently, the benevolent actions of Taiwan, thus, tends to affirm its existential value.

This is the first time the President of the European Commission has publicly mentioned “Taiwan”— a word which for a long time has been overlooked and silenced in the international community. Indeed, while COVID-19 nowadays is the world’s major disaster, it might be a chance for Taiwan to turn the tide regarding the perception of its “international status.” If Taiwan continues to take successful actions in preventing this pandemic and thus showing the value and advantages of being a democratic country, the rest of the world may finally begin to recognise our existence. Thus, the rampant infectious disease COVID-19 has the potential to promote not only the Taiwanese national consciousness but also holds the possibility of opening a window to a new future for Taiwan: a glimpse of hope concerning Taiwan’s international standing. At such a moment, times of crisis are also times of opportunity.

Mary Wang is a PhD candidate at National Taiwan Normal University. She is particularly interested in comparative literature, as she wrote a journal article to read Shawna Yang Ryan’s novel: “Writing Beyond History: Literature as Form in Green Island.” Currently, she is working on a project related to Woolf’s work on human/non-human turn in the hope that it would be manifest Woolfian peace about egalitarianism.

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