Taiwan’s Local Government’s Strategy for Fighting COVID-19: From Imitation to Innovation

Written by David G.H. Chen and Jou (Tender) Chang.

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

The Taiwanese government’s quick and transparent response to the Coronavirus outbreak — a response that has cooperated with medical professionals and the whole of Taiwanese society — has attracted worldwide attention through their national-level epidemic prevention measures. However, the role of Taiwanese local government, which helps implements national policy, has received less attention.

Local government deals with the front line of epidemic prevention work. Indeed, it is worth exploring how Taiwanese local governments, with their limited recourses, react to the novel Coronavirus. This article focuses on Taiwan’s local government’s epidemic prevention measures and explores how local governments learn from other local governments.

Institution-driven and Civil Society-driven Self-learning

Democratic countries generally have two major pedagogical driving forces for self-learning. The first is an institution-driven force. This force focuses on elections and public opinion polls. It would also include factors such as regular global views, monthly polls and magazines, which investigate city governance on county executives and city mayors. The other is civil society, which involves pressure from residents and interest groups. These two forces create a feedback loop of pedagogical development to make local governments engage in self-learning and innovation, aiding them in their reaction to the rapid expansion of the epidemic.

Modelling and innovation among local governments are common strategies in dealing with coronavirus prevention. When facing a complex, high-risk outbreak, local governments respond by learning from other local government’s experiences. By doing this, they not only reduce the learning cost and risk of failure but also quickly respond to residents’ needs and people’s competitive mentality. It also sets up an example for private organisations with limited resources to deal with epidemic prevention.

Learning how to Learn

Learning how to learn has always been the most critical issue for governments in democratic countries. Especially during the current pandemic, local governments must quickly respond with limited resources. Local government’s performance is directly related to residents’ health and safety. Consequently, most people will care about the local government’s epidemic prevention policies. Furthermore, pressure from residents drive local governments to deal with epidemic prevention measures, and this pressure also leads to competition between local governments in epidemic prevention policies.

When most local governments form a local joint epidemic prevention policy by learning from each other, they will advance the central government’s policy to implement an overarching epidemic prevention legislation. This will be followed by other local governments and, thus, construct a form of organic democratic competition.

No New Ideas? Imitation is Sometimes Better than Innovation

During times where epidemic prevention is needed, the government has the responsibility to quickly respond to the needs of residents so that the Coronavirus will not impact their daily lives. Due to time constraints from epidemic prevention work, local governments choose to copy each other’s local policies to respond to the pandemic.

When the local government successfully implements innovative policy, other local institutions will follow suit immediately. There are some examples, which explain how a local governments’ autonomous actions can positively affect neighbouring local governments’ measures, and, therefore, help the Central Epidemic Command Centre (CECC) in creating more epidemic prevention legislation.

For example, on the 20th of February, Lin Chih Chien (林智堅), who is the mayor of Hsinchu City government, created a ‘Fight COVID-19 alliance’ by linking five hospitals in Hsinchu. This alliance aimed to provide transparent epidemic information to each other and to work jointly with the Hsinchu City government in strengthening their epidemic prevention network. What is more, on the 25th of February, the county mayor of Miaoli county, which is just next door to Hsinchu city, followed up with Mayor Lin on this strategy. Thus, the Hsinchu County government also followed suit on the 2nd of April.

A policy of no visiting in hospitals made by the Taoyuan City government was publicly implemented on the 5th of March. On the same day, the Hsinchu city government announced a similar policy, which was then implemented on the 9th of March. The CECC followed this up on the 2nd of April by asking all hospitals to follow this instruction.

In addition, the Taoyuan City government encouraged public places of entertainment like the KTV, night club to close their shops temporarily on the 22nd of March. The Hsinchu City government mirrored this policy on the 30th of March. Therefore, the CECC announced that all night clubs must be closed down temporarily.

Be a Leader and Innovate!

It is important to note that civil society drives local governments to engage in self-learning and adopt modelling in response to epidemic policies, which adapt to local conditions to control the outbreak of viruses. For example, the public responded that many people could not buy medical-grade face masks. This drove the Hsinchu city government to create a local version of an online map website. The website in question provided information on various mask types, including those made for adults and children, and where to obtain these masks in over 108 listed pharmacies. Hence, the residents in Hsinchu can now acquire instant numbers of masks and buy what they need.

At the same time, in Hsinchu city — which is known to have one of the highest birth rates in Taiwan — Mayor Lin requested that the CECC increase its production of children’s medical-grade masks from 200 pcs per day to 400 pcs per day from the 9th of April. The Hsinchu county government followed suit on the 15th of April. The CECC opened online pre-orders for children’s medical-grade masks, in order to help people acquire these necessities.

All Epidemic Prevention Work is Local

Epidemic prevention work requires a very down to earth approach when protecting people’s lives and property. During epidemic prevention, local governments play a more active role in protecting and supporting their communities. The lessons from Taiwan’s local government epidemic prevention work to control COVID-19 are:

  1. A prompt response to public opinion is key to successful epidemic prevention.
  2. Reflective self-learning between local governments plays a crucial role in successful epidemic prevention.
  3. Modelling drives faster innovation among local governments.

The assertion that “Innovation happens from imitation in many ways” demonstrates that Taiwanese local governments’ experiences has not only resulted in a faster learning curve but also leads to a wave of innovation. Local governments strengthen Taiwan’s epidemic network through learning and innovation to control the Coronavirus outbreak. This model of learning and innovation will become an excellent example for local governments in the future when facing an unpredictable epidemic. It is time to explore and learn from local governments epidemic prevention work.

David Guo-Huei Chen (陳國暉) is a former assistant research fellow at TIER (Taipei). His research interests include international political economy, strategy and international security, and cross-strait relations. His current research focuses on foreign investment behaviour in Taiwan.

Jou (Tender) Chang (張柔. is a Taiwanese girl who cares for social welfare policies, gender equality, and social issues related to children and women. Now she tries to stay true to herself while involving public services.

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