Written by Chun-yi Lee and Yu-ching Kuo.
Image Credit: Before solving the problem, Must first listen to the problem by 葉 正道 Ben（busy）/ Flickr, License: CC BY-ND 2.0
The world changed this year. Covid-19 appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and gradually spread to Europe and the United States. At the time of writing (June 14), there are nearly 8 million confirmed cases of the virus worldwide. The global death toll is 431,225, with the United States suffering the most deaths (115,578). Yet Taiwan, a small, self-ruled island that is geographically close to mainland China, had seen only 443 confirmed cases and 7 deaths by June. So far, it has been a success story when it comes to dealing with the global pandemic. What lessons can we learn from Taiwan’s experience? This post will first discuss its management of the pandemic not only through the deployment of medical resources, but also through its track and trace system. It will also show how Taiwan was able to circumvent its international isolation through ‘mask diplomacy’.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Health and Social Welfare established the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) in 2008. It was tasked with preventing, monitoring and managing public health emergencies. Early action by the CECC was crucial in stemming the transmission of Covid-19. Foreigners who had visited China in the previous two weeks were barred from entering Taiwan from February 7 2020. And travellers granted entry to Taiwan, who had visited China, Hong Kong or Macau in the previous two weeks were required to self-isolate from February 10 2020. On March 19, the CECC launched a quarantine system that required all inbound passengers to be isolated for 14 days after arriving on the island.
A high-tech monitoring network was established, ensuring that self-quarantine was carried out. While concerns around privacy and the appropriate storage or use of personal data have arisen in countries that are considering their own monitoring systems, these concerns have not gained much attention in Taiwan. There are two main reasons. First, the Communicable Disease Control Act gives the CECC legal power to launch the relevant systems. And second, all data in the monitoring systems is encrypted. After the pandemic, the tracking system will stop functioning and all data and personal information will be deleted in accordance with the Personal Data Protection Act. Furthermore, anyone who has their personal data stored in these systems has the legal right to request that it be removed.
During the pandemic, medical research teams based in university hospitals and government-funded research institutes worked not only to develop a coronavirus test, but also to improve the accuracy, affordability, and efficiency of the testing. Furthermore, alliances and partnerships linking private industry and university or government sectors have been forged. For example, publicly-funded research institutes have primarily focused on basic research related to testing. With government facilitation and support, several biotechnology firms have worked with these institutes to transfer the results of this research into production. Many domestic medical equipment manufacturers and/or high-tech firms have worked to enhance the quality and productivity of medical equipment—for example, personal protective equipment for medical staff, and thermographic cameras for installation in public buildings and transport stations.
Since the beginning the outbreak, several high-tech firms have reportedly joined the government’s “Taiwan Can Help” initiative. While serving the domestic market, these firms also receive orders from abroad. For example, ADE Technology specialises in adapting AI face recognition technology for non-contact thermal imaging body temperature display instruments. ADE Technology has donated body temperature cameras to 15 countries that have with diplomatic relations with Taiwan; it has also attracted buyers from Central and Eastern Europe. IWEECARE has launched the world’s smallest smart thermometers, which can measure the temperature of multiple patients using temperature patches and cloud monitoring. IWEECARE’s products have interested buyers from China and Japan, mainly because its smart thermometers are able to connect with a tracking system for those self-quarantining at home.
Due to Chinese pressure, Taiwan is not a member of World Health Organisation (WHO). Since President Tsai started her first term in 2016, neither has Taiwan been an observer at the World Health Assembly (WHA). However, Taiwan does have experience it can share with the world when it comes to coping with the global pandemic. How, then, has it circumvented its lack of representation in global health forums?
First, after bringing the virus under control domestically, beginning in late March, it began exporting masks abroad. Taiwan is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of medical-grade masks. On April 1, Taipei announced that it would go beyond its 15 formal diplomatic allies and donate 10 million masks to the world’s neediest countries. China also commenced its own mask diplomacy, but while the Chinese production of masks and medical kits was impressive in terms of quantity and speed, it was less so in terms of quality. This left Taiwan a with a bigger space to export its high-quality, reliable medical masks to the world, at a time when most of it is still fighting the pandemic.
How can we understand Taiwan’s ‘international space’ in light of its success in fighting Covid-19, and in sharing this experience with the world? We might need to think about this unconventionally. Taiwan’s international presence has not been maintained through its participation in international organisations—it is neither a member of the WHO nor an observer at the WHA. But it has helped the global effort to control the virus by sharing its experience and being a responsible stakeholder, and exporting medical resources to other countries. Taiwan’s voice has therefore been heard at a time when the global discussion about how to overcome Covid-19 needs as many contributions as possible.
Yu-Ching Kuo currently works in the private sector and as a freelance writer. She is the first author of In dialogue with science’s social contract with society (2018) and Research, Development and Innovation: Transformation in Taiwanese Higher Education (2019).
Dr. Chun-Yi Lee is a lecturer at the school of Politics and International Relation (SPIR) at University of Nottingham. She is also the director of Taiwan Studies Programme (TSP)and Taiwan Insight Editor in Chief.
This article is part of the special issue on Taiwan’s international participation.