By any measure, Taiwan should have been the second-hardest-hit area of the coronavirus outbreak outside mainland China. Taiwan is less than 100 miles away from mainland China and receives an estimated 3 million mainland tourists annually. Furthermore, more than 1 million Taiwanese travel to mainland China each year.
The expansive travel volume across the Taiwan strait reached its peak during the recent lunar New Year celebration in January, as it always has. Yet this densely populated island of 23 million people has only 44 confirmed cases of the virus to date, and just one death so far.
Taiwan hasn’t experienced the need to cancel schools nor lock down major cities. At this critical period when the publicly feared coronavirus is amplifying in numbers worldwide, it’s clear the Taiwanese government has done something right in its containment measures.
How did Taiwan do it? The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published recent findings crediting the Taiwanese government with recognizing the crisis early. Taiwan took swift and decisive actions, while Beijing and the World Health Organization (WHO) were busy downplaying the risks.
Taiwan Took the Actions Beijing Should Have
As we now know, Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, recorded its first patient as early as Dec. 1, 2019. In the following days, Beijing coerced doctors in Wuhan and prevented them from alerting their peers and the general public. Medical professionals who sounded alarms were reprimanded by the government for “spreading rumors.” Beijing waited until Dec. 31 to notify the WHO about the coronavirus, while declaring nothing to the Chinese people.
As soon as Taiwan officials heard the news Dec. 31, however, they refused to take any chances. Based on their past experiences of dealing with another deadly virus outbreak, SARS, they took action the same day. According to JAMA, “Taiwanese officials began to board planes and assess passengers on direct flights from Wuhan for fever and pneumonia symptoms before passengers could deplane.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that as early as Jan. 5, Chinese researchers in Shanghai mapped out the virus’s entire genome and recommended “appropriate prevention and control measures in public places.” Beijing ignored such recommendations, however, and didn’t publicly disclose these findings.
Like the rest of the world, Taiwan wasn’t notified either, but the lack of information didn’t prevent it from taking further action. On that same day, the Taiwan government expanded its health checks to include “any individual who had traveled to Wuhan in the past 14 days and had a fever or symptoms of upper respiratory tract infection at the point of entry; suspected cases were screened for 26 viruses including SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). Passengers displaying symptoms of fever and coughing were quarantined at home and assessed whether medical attention at a hospital was necessary.”
In the meantime, Beijing spent the first half of January downplaying the virus’s ability to transmit human-to-human. The head of the China disease control emergency centers said on television Jan. 15 that “the risk of human-to-human transmission is low.” Confirmed cases in Wuhan were kept artificially low so the general public, unaware of the risks, took no initial precautions and went about their business, including attending mass banquets where thousands of people shared food and rubbed shoulders.
How Taiwan Countered Coronavirus Despite a Lack of Info
While Taiwan could not rely on Beijing to provide timely and accurate information, it also received little help from the WHO. The WHO bowed to Beijing’s demand in stripping Taiwan’s access to the WHO since 2016. The Wall Street Journal reported, “The WHO has held two emergency meetings since the coronavirus outbreak. Taiwan wasn’t permitted to attend, despite its proximity to China and its handful of confirmed cases.” Consequently, “Taiwan often must rely on secondhand information relayed by friendly governments and nongovernmental organizations” to manage its response.
Not receiving any guidance from the WHO turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Taiwan. On Jan. 20, three days before Beijing decided to lock down Wuhan and three other major cities comprised of 60 million residents, and 10 days before the WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a public-health emergency of international concern, the Taiwanese public health agency officially activated the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC). The CECC was established during the SARS outbreak in 2003, and one of its main responsibilities is to coordinate viral-containment efforts through various governmental agencies.
The CECC’s swift actions included imposing travel bans of Wuhan residents as early as Jan. 23, increasing funding and production of masks and starting the mask ration system before the public had a chance to hoard, and providing daily press briefings to reassure and educate the public while fighting misinformation.
The most impressive action regarded how the CECC used technology. An entry quarantine system was launched Feb. 14 so “travelers can complete the health declaration form by scanning a QR code that leads to an online form, either prior to departure from or upon arrival at a Taiwan airport. A mobile health declaration pass was then sent via SMS to phones using a local telecom operator, which allowed for faster immigration clearance for those with minimal risk.” By Feb. 18, all hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies in Taiwan gained instant access to their patients’ travel histories.
Not surprisingly, the CECC’s transparency and decisive measures have received a more than 80 percent approval rating from the Taiwanese, and the public isn’t panicking. The Taiwan government has also been able to keep its businesses and schools open while continuing measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus. President Tsi Ing-wen saw her approval rating increase from from 56.7 percent in January to 68.5 percent in February.
Learn from China’s Failures and Taiwan’s Success
Taiwan’s success has won it praise from a number of countries, including South Korea and Germany, but no pat on the back from either Beijing or the WHO. Likely irked by Taiwan’s accomplishment, internet trolls originating from mainland China were reportedly spreading disinformation about Taiwan, accusing the authorities of lying about the actual number of infected cases, an accusation the Taiwan government quickly and forcefully denied.
In the meantime, the director of the WHO, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, hasn’t commented on Taiwan’s success. Instead, he continues to sing Beijing’s praises despite Beijing’s deliberate cover-ups, which not only caused great suffering within China but also contributed to a worldwide panic as the numbers of confirmed cases and deaths outside China keep rising.
The WHO also lumps coronavirus cases reported by Taiwan under total cases in mainland China and continues to refer to Taiwan as a high-risk area even though Taiwan’s numbers are minuscule compared to mainland China’s 80,739 cases and 3,120 deaths. The WHO is kowtowing to Beijing during this crisis, and by allowing politics to dictate health-care decisions, it has ruined its credibility and reputation.
When the world faces another health challenge in the future and Beijing is involved, learn from Taiwan. Don’t wait for “guidance” from the WHO, and definitely don’t believe in Beijing’s denial. Do what you think is right for your own people, quickly and decisively.