Taiwan & COVID-19: Avoiding Widespread Outbreak So Far

As countries fall under the shadow of COVID-19 one after another, Taiwan has managed to avoid a widespread outbreak so far. Early decisions to suspend entry to the island and strict social measures are the key to Taiwan’s success.

Taiwan’s record on COVID-19 is shockingly impressive. As of March 18, 2020, Taiwan has confirmed 100 cases of COVID-19, with only one death. That is a remarkable statistic compared to the massive number of cases identified in the mainland, Japan and South Korea. To put that number in perspective: Taiwan has a population of 23.8 million people living in close quarters within about 14,000 square miles—an island about the size of the U.S. state of Maryland but with four times as many people. The early and fast decisions to implement quarantines, encourage social distancing, and provide the public with information and tools like the face mask app prevented Taiwan’s densely populated cities from becoming hotspots of contagion, which, in turn, prevented Taiwan’s medical system from becoming overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

Taiwan reacted to the outbreak of COVID-19 with a practical array of policies. One of the earliest to sound an alarm, Taiwan had already been monitoring cases at its own hospitals since early January by the time the first case was confirmed there on January 21—two days before the mainland imposed a lockdown in Wuhan. With strict quarantining measures in place for anyone traveling from the mainland, including a 14-day quarantine for travelers who visited the mainland, Europe, and other hotspots recently, prohibition on the use of public transportation by the Taipei city government to prevent travelers from infecting others, and hefty fees for violating the rules, Taiwan moved swiftly to control the influx of cases as the Lunar New Year holiday travel season commenced. As of March 19, most foreign nationals are barred from entering Taiwan. To prevent local transmission of COVID-19, schools closed for an extended Lunar New Year break, but reopened on February 25 with measures to encourage social distancing—such as the use of student desk dividers (normally used to  prevent cheating on tests) —and health monitoring through daily temperature checks of all students.

Taiwan’s quick decisions early in the outbreak will help to keep the number of cases in Taiwan at a more manageable level, while also preventing panic.

Meanwhile, with Taiwan’s face masks mostly imported from the mainland, which was facing its own desperate shortages, factories rapidly increased domestic production of face masks at the direction of the government. In order to prevent a shortage and public panic, the government established a rationing system for buying face masks according to health insurance identification numbers, and individual programmers, along with Taiwan’s digital minister, developed a set of apps to help people in Taiwan locate pharmacies with face masks in stock. Clear and effective public messaging from Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control emphasized three key activities: wearing face masks, washing hands, and avoiding crowds.

One issue related to Taiwan’s management of COVID-19 that might have been controversial is the 1,000 Taiwan citizens stranded in Hubei province after the outbreak of the virus. Only half of the stranded Taiwanese have returned to Taiwan so far, a process that took over a month of negotiation between Taiwan and the mainland. At the core of the delay was the frosty political stalemate between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, where formal communications have been severed by the mainland since Tsai Ing-wen became president of Taiwan in 2016. Even as the coronavirus swept through Wuhan and neighboring areas, disagreements on who would be evacuated in what order, on what airlines, and under what timeline stymied a swift resolution and squandered an opportunity for Taiwan and the mainland to cooperate in an unusual emergency. Nevertheless, Taiwan’s quick decisions early in the outbreak will help to keep the number of cases in Taiwan at a more manageable level, while also preventing panic.

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