If the world learns from anyone about how to handle the COVID-19 crisis, it should learn from Taiwan. Despite its close proximity to mainland China, Taiwan only has 252 cases of COVID-19, whereas its neighbors Japan and South Korea each have thousands of cases. China, the virus’ country of origin, has over 80,000 cases and counting.
Taiwan’s numbers also fare better than countries thousands of miles away. Italy has over 90,000 cases, with the numbers surpassing even China, and the United States takes first place in the number of cases at 120,000. Population is not a factor here — Taiwan may be a small island with 24 million people, but the level of incidence per capita is much lower than its neighboring countries. The key to Taiwan’s success in containing the virus is due to its initial aggressive response to the outbreak.
COVID-19 emerged around the time of Lunar New Year celebrations, where millions of people travel home to ring in the new lunar year. Despite the rapid transmissibility of the virus, China was slow to react and missed the golden window of opportunity to contain the outbreak. By the time they put travel restrictions in place, thousands had already traversed across the country.
Meanwhile, Taiwan had subject passengers from Wuhan to health screenings even before the first confirmed case of human-to-human transmission on Jan. 20. According to the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control (CDC), all flights were “boarded by officials and inspected” before being allowed to disembark.
Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore had all implemented travel restrictions on arrivals from the mainland by Feb. 1, even though the World Health Organization (WHO) insisted that travel bans were unnecessary at the time.
“If you assume that containing an epidemic is like running a 100-meter dash, Taiwan had a head start because it was prepared,” Dr. C. Jason Wang, Director of Stanford University’s Center for Policy, Outcomes and Prevention, said.
In addition to travel-related preventative measures, Taiwan also proactively sought out “patients with severe respiratory symptoms … who had tested negative for influenza and retested them for COVID-19.” Officials found one case of COVID-19 out of 113 possible cases. This reactive testing acts as a testament to Taiwan’s dedication in minimizing the crisis.
Taiwan has been responding to pandemics through public health policies since 2004 after the SARS epidemic, which infected over 8,000 and killed 800 worldwide in 2003. They established the National Health Command Center (NHCC) as a crisis command center to focus on “large-outbreak response” and act as the “operational command point for direct communications among central, regional and local authorities.” The NHCC “unified a central command system,” including the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), the Biological Pathogen Disaster Command Center, the Counter-Bioterrorism Command Center and the Central Medical Emergency Operations Center.
The CECC played a critical role in resource allocation, executively setting the price of masks and using government funds to increase mask production. By Jan. 20, Taiwan had already established a stockpile of masks and isolation rooms.
To reassure the public and prevent mass hysteria, the Vice President of Taiwan broadcasted regular public service announcements and the Minister of Health and Welfare gave daily press briefings. These announcements included instructions on hygiene and the danger of hoarding masks, which prevents them from being available to health workers who are ceaselessly fighting in the frontlines against COVID-19. Taiwan’s Communicable Disease Control Act targets those who spread misinformation about diseases or epidemics to be fined up to NT $3 million ($99,168 USD), providing strict punishment to deter not only COVID-19 but also false information.
Governments must make difficult decisions under uncertainty and time constraints in times of crisis. Due to early recognition, establishment of a crisis command center and daily press briefings to the public, Taiwan’s government was able to assess and control the COVID-19 outbreak as well as present timely and transparent information to the general public. Taiwan is a stellar example of how a government can react promptly and empathetically to a crisis that threatens the welfare of its citizens, and America has much to learn from this island nation.
Chelsea Pan is a 2019-2020 City News Co-Editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.