Written by Chih-chien Lin, Mayor of Hsinchu City, ROC (Taiwan)
Image credit: debconf18-taiwan-2018-272 by Curitiba Livre/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0
Mark Twain once said ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.’ On December 31st, 2019, the WHO office in Beijing reported unknown pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China. On February 23rd, 2020, right before Chinese New Year, governments enforced large-scale traffic control (aka lockdown) in Wuhan. On February 27th, the Central Epidemic Command Centre in Taiwan gave its highest alert. It was a serious warning about the subsequent COVID-19 pandemic.
By now, over 194 million people worldwide have been infected, with 4.16 million deaths, and Taiwan is no exemption. While Taiwan successfully blocked the virus in most parts of 2020, it still managed to sneak in. As a result, on May 11th, 2021, Taiwan issued a Level 2 Warning and upgraded to a Level 3 Warning on May 19th.
Schools are closed during Level 3 Warning periods, dine-ins are banned, employees work from home, and public spaces are shut down. Scenarios unimaginable to us a few months ago have become the new normal.
The Main Challenge: The Dilemma between Economic Growth and Epidemic Prevention
Hsinchu City is not only the home of Hsinchu Science Park. It has an output value of more than NT$ 1 trillion and accounts for 4.7% of the overall GDP in Taiwan. Moreover, it is also home to many national-level research institutions, such as the National Space Organization (NSPO), the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI), and five universities (the notable National Tsing Hua University and the National Yang-Ming Chiao Tung University).
These facilities make Hsinchu an economic growth engine in Taiwan and an important base in the global semiconductor industry. Therefore, epidemic control in Hsinchu City is critical for the security of the worldwide semiconductor industry supply chain.
On June 2nd, when a migrant worker’s Covid outbreak occurred at King Yuan Electronics Group in Miaoli County, I received a call from a business owner from Hsinchu Science Park. They were hoping the government would set up screening stations there.
According to opinions collected, most of the business owners of Hsinchu Science Park hope that through large-scale screening, we can find out the transmission chain hidden in the community as soon as possible to block the spread of the virus.
In addition to preventing the epidemic, we must also take economic growth and the daily life of citizens into account. Therefore, I said to my colleagues, we must humbly learn to live in harmony with the virus.
New Phases of Governance: The Continuation of Pandemic Resistance and Infrastructure Development
While the COVID-19 virus was once a complete unknown, scientists have worked extremely hard to develop vaccines and various ways to cope with it.
Before treatments are widely available, however, we still need to live in harmony with the virus. Thus, development amid pandemic measures has become a new norm in city governance to ensure quality of life for citizens.
In 2020, we partnered with five major hospitals, established a face mask manufacturer alliance in Hsinchu, and launched a face mask availability map online so that residents can feel safe.
In response to the fast-changing situation, supported by President Tsai Ing-wen, we have set up an ‘anti-epidemic combat alliance’ with Hsinchu and Miaoli County. We have also built a ‘line of defence’ to coordinate against the pandemic in 2021.
This innovative model has successfully stopped infections from spreading. This model can be seen in the setting up of screening stations at Hsinchu Science Park within 18 hours of virus detection. This is to safeguard key tech industries—’Industries of national importance.’
During the pandemic, our infrastructure plans continue, including Science Park X, the new children’s hospital, the walkable city, the children’s exploration park, the general library, the waterfront works, zoo renovations, and park constructions. Our train station and light rail programs will be relevant to the city in the next 100 years. The national infrastructure plan has completed a backup pipeline between Taoyuan and Hsinchu to minimize risks for water shortage.
The Anti-epidemic Combat Alliance
Hsinchu City is the core city of the Greater Hsinchu area (Hsinchu City, Hsinchu, and Miaoli County). Our strategic goal is to protect the Greater Hsinchu area and the Hsinchu Science Park, guard the country’s strategic industries, and ensure the security of the global semiconductor supply chain.
On June 2nd, an outbreak occurred among migrant workers at King Yuan Electronics Group in Miaoli County. The following day, I called President Tsai Ing-wen and asked for support from the national army. Thus, by June 4th, the military had helped established screening stations at Hsinchu Science Park. On June 5th, under the instructions of President Tsai Ing-wen, the ‘anti-epidemic combat alliance’ with Hsinchu and Miaoli County was established. I have a hotline for communication with the Hsinchu and Miaoli County Magistrate. Furthermore, staff from the three local governments can contact each other to monitor epidemic trends.
The Hsinchu Science Park screening station screened 5,213 migrant workers, of which nearly 50% were from Hsinchu and Miaoli County. In addition, I launched a traditional industry project to screen migrant workers in traditional industries to block the virus. This innovative model is also used in Pingtung County to block the transmission of the Delta variant.
Line of Defence: Vaccination, Contact Tracing, and Monitoring
It is our common challenge to live with the virus. We follow guidelines from the national government, take international experiences as a reference, and consult medical experts. As a result, we establish three defence lines to balance public health and business as usual.
Vaccination is the first and the most critical line. Higher coverage is the only way to live in harmony with the virus. To improve efficiency, Hsinchu is the first city to set up large vaccination stations in Taiwan.
Secondly, our contact tracking team across healthcare, law enforcement, civil affairs, and social works identify infection sources precisely. Finally, people in contact with confirmed patients are placed in quarantine hotels to stop the virus from spreading.
We also establish a monitor network. Besides reports from hospitals and clinics, we also pay close attention to virus mutations to sustain daily operations. Our efforts include:
- Tracking Severe Cases and Healthcare Capacity
Hsinchu City has reported the lowest incidence rates in northern Taiwan (0.8 cases in every 10,000 people). However, since the virus has penetrated our communities, keeping the elimination strategy may be difficult and costly. So, instead, we focus on severe cases and healthcare capacity.
- Encourage Rapid Tests for Community Safety
We encourage enterprises, schools, day-care centres, and other industries that frequently contact people to use rapid tests regularly. In addition to monitoring employees and educators’ health status, we procure self-test kits for emergency scenarios.
The New Normal
The pandemic has changed some parts of our life. Face masks, for example, are always on, even during exercise. Remote learning at schools introduces online tools earlier to children. As a result, our life experiences are more closely integrated with online systems than ever.
Even under these changes, we stay united. Everyone works hard and abides by official measures. People in Taiwan are resilient and try to do their part against the pandemic.
Critical Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic
Trust is the best solution to lead us through the crisis. I often remind my colleagues that we need to cherish public trust as our lifeline. It is the bedrock to our progress and achievements, and we cannot risk losing the trust given to Hsinchu City Government.
Everyone is a stakeholder under this pandemic, so all our efforts are coordinated across departments, from contact tracing and vaccination to screening stations.
As Winston Churchill once said, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’ We have learned valuable lessons in Hsinchu because of this pandemic of the century.
LIN, Chih-chien, Mayor of Hsinchu City, ROC (Taiwan)