Taiwan’s Experience and Global Efforts in Reponse to Covid-19: Towards a Digitalised and Sustainable World

Written by Chih-Wei Chen.

Image credit: ประธาธิบดีไต้หวันเยือนโรงงานผลิตหน้ากากอนามัย 台灣康匠製造公司 เมื่อวันที่ 5 กุมภาพันธ์ 2020 by Prachatai/Flickr, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In recent decades, the world is facing increasingly severe challenges caused by climate change, natural disasters, worldwide public health issues, and so on. To combat the challenges, the United Nations officially launched Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 and advocated that all countries around the world endeavour to cooperate to achieve the goals. On the other hand, the advent of the digital era and the rapid development of digital technologies, such as big data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI), have provided new opportunities for people to implement sustainable development measures.

Heeding the call, Taiwan’s government has been actively taking actions to explore, interpret, and put into practice the spirit of UN SDGs by investing in sustainabity domestically, and contributing to global efforts to support other countries to achieve SDGs. Taiwan’s efforts in response to COVID-19 present an outstanding example of a new domain of governance, i.e. harnessing digital power to implement sustainable development. Taiwan has already successfully applied this to health – as of 14 September, confirmed cases of COVID-19 have reached 28.9 million worldwide, with deaths numbering 925 thousand, while Taiwan has successfully contained its spread with only 498 confirmed cases and 7 deaths. Such great success should be credited to Taiwan’s long-term efforts in implementing UN SDG 3 through digitalisation, as well as cross-department collaboration.

Implementing SDG 3 through digitalisation

Echoing UN SDG3’s tenet of ensuring healthy lives and promoting wellbeing for all, Taiwan’s government has developed a series of policies to guide cross-department actions and provide healthcare for all citizens. The National Health Insurance (NHI) system covers approximately 93% of med enhances equlity of access. To increase its efficiency, the NHI integrated digital technologies, including digitalising medical information, introducing an IC-chipped NHI card, and developing a “NHI MediCloud System”. Enhanced by these digital technologies, the NHI enables doctors to quickly obtain medical records and examination results, identify allergies and other information on their patients, and provide accurate diagnosis and prescribe appropriate treatment. In addition, Taiwan has established the National Health Command Centre (NHCC), which includes the Central Epidemic Command Centre (CECC), the Biological Pathogen Disaster Command Centre, the Counter-Bioterrorism Command Centre and the Central Medical Emergency Operations Centre, all of which enable authorities and medical specialists comprehensively address public health emergencies and prevent major epidemics. The NHCC has further developed a real-time information-exchange platform to interpret the information obtained from its indicator-based and event-based epidemic surveillance systems. This system collects data from the NHI, National Infectious Disease Statistics System and other databases, allowing the NHCC to monitor and visualise worldwide epidemics at the earliest time and provide timely epidemic warnings.

Domestic efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19

COVID-19 prevention in Taiwan could not be successful without long-term efforts to realise UN SDG 3 via digitalisation, as well as cross-department collaboration after the outbreak of COVID-19. As Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen mentioned, this success has been achieved through the cooperative efforts of medical professionals, government, private sector contributors, as well as the Taiwanese people.

On 20th January, Taiwan activated the Central Epidemic Command Centre (CECC) immediately after sporadic reports emerged of the appearance of the disease. In the succeeding months, the CECC conducted daily press briefings to report the situation of the pandemic, provide instructions on pandemic prevention measures for citizens, and support citizens to fight disinformation/misinformation during the pandemic. At the same time, the Taiwanese government utilised various digital technologies and conducted cross-department collaborations to effectively implement border controls, pandemic surveillance, proactive testing, and other measures. The past 14-day travel history of patients and their NHI card data, provided by the National Immigration Agency and National Health Insurance Administration (NHIA), were combined with clinical symptoms to identify active COVID-19 cases. The risk of travellers was classified based on identifying their past 14-day travel history and flight origins by using QR code scanning and online reporting. SMS messages were then sent to individual travellers to indicate whether they require quarantine at home or are eligible for faster immigration clearance.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the number of face masks – one of the most critical healthcare resources for combating the spread of COVID-19 – were insufficient to supply all medical professionals and others. On discovering this, Taiwan immediately organised the National Face Mask Production Team, and allocated additional resources including funds and military personnel to increase the production of face masks, which rapidly increased to 13 million per day by early April. To follow up, a Name-based Mask Distribution System was developed by leveraging Google information platforms to produce a ‘mask map,’ and integrate information from government databases (e.g. production, supply, and consumption demand) and the NHI database (e.g. date and amount of masks purchased by each person). After months of sustained effort, this system reached its third generation upgrade, upon which people were able to pre-order masks using their NHI card via kiosks located in convenient stores nationwide.

Apart from the above efforts, Taiwan also successfully addressed the emergency caused by a COVID-19 outbreak in the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship. Over 3000 passengers disembarked at Keelung harbour in Taiwan just 5 days before the outbreak. The government immediately developed an electronic footprint map for those passengers, and used phone-based GPSs to identify 627,386 potential contact-persons. SMSs were then sent to each suspected case to advise them to self-monitor and self-quarantine, and those with symptoms were offered COVID-19 tests. All tested contacts were negative, and no confirmed cases was recorded.

Global contributions to containing the pandemic

Beyond stunning domestic achievements in pandemic prevention, Taiwan also has been actively taking global responsibility and contributing efforts to support international friends to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Since April, Taiwan announced a series of face mask donations to the most vulnerable and affected countries and regions, including the United States, European Union member states and other European nations, South-east Asia countries, as well as Taiwan’s diplomatic allies. Meanwhile, Taiwan also provided support for other countries to develop face mask production lines. On the other hand, Taiwan shared its experience of pandemic prevention with other countries and collaborated with world-leading medical centres to develop drugs and vaccines.

On 9th September, Taiwan’s former Vice President Chen Chien-Jen, who is also a renowned epidemiologist in Taiwan, shared Taiwan’s experiences in epidemic prevention with global friends at the Ketagalan Forum: 2020 Asia-Pacific Security Dialogue. He pointed out that the key things that helped Taiwan successfully contain COVID-19 was the swiftness of its response, its cautious actions, early distribution, and transparent governance. He also explained in detail how Taiwan monitored the COVID-19 from its origin, collated and allocated pandemic prevention resources such as face mask, and announced policies in a transparent and ordered fashion. These efficient and effective actions inspired citizen to obey pandemic preventionrules to protect themselves and others.

Taiwan’s successes in implementing UN SDG 3 and COVID-19 not only brand Taiwan as a digitalised and sustainable nation, but also echo the spirit of UN SDG 17 – fostering global partnerships.

In a way, the COVID-19 crisis fits the bill of a disruptive event that promts innovation that could restructure society on a global scale. Today, although Taiwan is still not a member of the United Nations, Taiwan’s younger generations continuously embrace the spirit of global partnership and devote themselves to promoting connections between Taiwan and the international society in various domains. Since 2018, Taiwan has further collated resources from public and private sector and has held the largest-scale Social Innovation Summit in the Asia-Pacific region on a yearly basis. Due to the impact of COVID-19, the Social Innovation Summit 2020 has been hosted remotely using digital platforms, but has still attracted experts and scholars from many countries, and has been recommended by the United Nations General Assembly’s (UNGA) official website for the first time.

The COVID-19 crisis could never be solved by individual efforts, but requires collective endeavours by everyone across the globe. Taiwan has the ability and willingness to become a responsible and effective partner in pandemic prevention. Echoing UN SDG 17 – Global partnership, we cannot leave the issue of “collaboration” aside. To implement UN SDGs and address the global public health crisis, Taiwan can help, and Taiwan is helping.

Chih-Wei Chen FRGS is an advisor for the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research (TIER), has a Life Fellowship at the UK’s Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), is a Visiting Professor at the University College London (UCL), and is serving as a visiting Scholar of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS), Japan.

This article is part of a special issue on Taiwan’s application to enter the United Nations.

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