Written by Roman Shemakov.
As the metabolic flow of a city is commandeered by a virus, urban sensing is amplified. The proximity of animals, people, and capital in markets is one of the foundational functions of city life. Random evolutions of ingenuity, community, and viruses thus become a natural by-product of urban proximity. Since the invention of every technology (and a city is certainly a technological mechanism) is also an invention of a new accident, we must think of viruses as a feature of cities, not an anomaly. While previous viral creations remained relatively localised, COVID-19, as a global phenomena, transcended borders, cultures, and financial markets. Just like skyscrapers, risk-computation, and supply chains are a by-product of globalisation, so is the COVID-19.
The interesting thing about a response to an urban virus is the urban solutions that arise out of it. To stop a virus, cities must stop themselves. They must stop the logic of urban function. Individual contact is reduced. Mobility is restricted. Exchange is curtailed. In turn, the cities evolve out of themselves. In the short term, they must become the technologies for fighting the thing they produced, in turn cannibalising themselves. In Taiwan, the outflow of people into rural areas, the deafening silence of the metro, and the empty streets are prime examples of that. The question the whole world is asking is how will these ephemeral responses change the very fabric of city life.
When a mysterious infection arose in Wuhan in 2019, Taiwan was one of the first nations in the world to respond. The Tsai Ing-Weng administration placed strict controls on the movement of people between Taiwan and China. The first imported infection was discovered in Taipei on January 21st 2020. A week later, Taiwan registered its first domestic infection. In response, the National Health Command Centre of Taiwan’s Centre for Disease Control (established in response to the 2003 Sars Outbreak) sprang into action. International travel was reduced, quarantines became mandatory, and domestic cases were tracked.
Despite small and intermittent outbreaks, Taiwan’s centralised and interdepartmental response prevented long term shutdowns and strained the national economy. “The Journal of the American Medical Association says Taiwan engaged in 124 discrete action items to prevent the spread of the disease, including early screening of flights from Mainland China and the tracking of individual cases.” From surveillance to mobility, this already started to transform the way Taiwan’s cities functioned.
The latest outbreak on May 15th of 2021 marked a shift in both tone and expectation. Individual cities vying to obtain vaccines, internal border closure, vaccine distribution, private citizen lobbying for quicker access, hybrid work pressures all sowed the seeds for a new urban consensus across Taiwan. It might be years before we get a clear picture of all the structural side effects, but in a way, the transformation of each city into a quarantine centre only has analogies with the martial law period. There are three developments throughout Taiwan’s cities that I consider more viscous than others.
First, there is the question of jurisdiction. During a short sparring match between the mayor of Taipei Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) and Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung (陳時中) placed the role of cities on the world-stage in question. Ko Wen-je claimed that the city of Taipei could import vaccines, a statement that had to be extensively responded to by the federal government, calling Vaccines import an issue of national security. The tension between national security, urban autonomy, and central control has been simmering in Taiwan since the end of martial law in 1987, so it is only natural they resurface in a critical time like this.
Second, there is a question of autonomy. Each city was required to follow overarching national policy. As a result, it wasn’t strange to cross-city lines and be confronted by slight variations in pandemic protocols, different expectations, and even different methods of mask-wearing. The pandemic, in some way, reinforced urban identities and demographic realities. These will remain throughout future elections, crises, and emergencies. In the next pandemic, these regional differences ought to be understood and accounted for.
Third, there is a question of accountability. Taiwan’s citizens and civil society organisations diligently surveilled government officials throughout the past year and a half. Taipei mayor was chastised and criticised by “media personalities, politicians, and voters for his relatively poor performance in fighting the outbreak” enough that he was forced to reluctantly accept CDC’s help. Furthermore, diligent reports about the country’s elite vaccine line-cutting, breaking of quarantine regulations, and unnecessary international travel spurred a nationwide conversation about inequality and corruption. These conversations have already subsided, but tensions remain, and they will re-emerge in the next pandemic.
As cities became quarantines, their role in people’s lives has changed. The emergency-time powers of urban machinery sprang into action with a mix of support, questions, and doubts. The questions of jurisdiction, autonomy, and accountability will persist. They ought to be considered and addressed in preparation for the coming geological, biological, and ecological problems.
Roman Shemakov is currently a Visiting Scholar at Zhejiang University studying urban planning, global infrastructure governance, and international development on a fellowship from the China-U.S. Scholars Program (CUSP) funded by the Harvard-Yenching Institute, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Ford Foundation, and Rockefeller Brothers Fund. His book, the Digital Transformation of Property in Greater China (World Scientific) is out this year.
This article was published as part of Politics of Vaccination special issue. All articles in the special issue can be found here.