The fight against COVID-19 is not over yet. India has perhaps entered community transmission but rising immunity among Indians has kept the mortality rate low. Social distancing norms and guidelines are violated by the citizens partly due to ignorance but mainly due to the absence of a strong and competent centralised mechanism. In its fight against COVID-19, India has a lot to learn from Taiwan.
While several models from all over the world to contain the COVID-19 spread has been discussed, one particular model from a tiny island assumes significance i.e. Taiwan model. Taiwan’s quick, capable and strong leadership-led action has turned this model to battle the pandemic internationally. Taiwan, a strategically important island in the Western Pacific Ocean, is counted among the most dynamic democracies of the world. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) considers Taiwan as a part of its territory; however, it has no sovereign control over it. Taiwan or unofficially Republic of China (ROC) is a de-facto nation-state with a vibrant export-oriented economy specializing in sophisticated, capital-intensive, and technology-intensive products. However, the political status of this “Asian Tiger” is still ambiguous. Interestingly, Taiwan is not a member of the World Health Organisation; its strong and timely response to the pandemic without taking any external help is highly admirable.
The first COVID-19 case was recorded on 21st January 2020 in Taiwan, which is only 130 km off the coast of mainland China. Globally, it was predicted that Taiwan might get the second highest number of cases of the disease due to its closeness to China and numerous flights between Taiwan and the mainland. However, it never happened. The island nation with 23 million residents had only 449 cases with 7 deaths, out of which 434 recovered and only 4 active cases until June-end. In addition, Taiwan received 2.71 million visitors from mainland China in 2019. Neither lockdown happened into country nor its economy affected. By all means, Taiwan has shown remarkable commitments towards handling the pandemic.
Among the strategies adopted by Taiwan, first and foremost, Taiwan has learned the lessons from the past. It has been on constant readiness and has been prepared to take action on epidemics arising from mainland China since the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2003. As a result, when news concerning a novel pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan was first confirmed on 31st December 2019, Taiwanese health officials began to board aircraft and examine passengers on direct flights from Wuhan for fever and pneumonia-like symptoms before passengers could de-board. Taiwan acted early, as by 5th January 2020 the notice was sent to all citizens who had travelled to Wuhan in the last 14 days and showed fever-type symptoms at the entry point. All the suspected cases were tested for 26 viruses including SARS. Those showing symptoms of fever were immediately quarantined.
The disease also appeared at a very significant time as millions of Chinese and Taiwanese were planning to travel due to Lunar New Year holidays. Without wasting much time, just within 10 days of the first case reported, Taiwan closed its entrance to all visitors from Wuhan and by 6th February all arrivals from the mainland. Taipei acted six days before any other countries made that decision. All other passengers were told to fill up and show a health declaration form before entry. As the air travel was the main source of virus spread, all foreign passengers with a residence permit were stopped from entering Taiwan.
Next important step was the role of public health officials. As Taiwan allowed the public health experts to guide the actions to curb the spread of the disease, the country established a critical link with the COVID 19 very early. With the help of efficient leadership, Taiwan took specific measures for case identification, control and resource allotment to safeguard the public health.
In addition, Taiwan adopted central command coordinated measures. Country’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reactivated the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) on 20th January 2020, under the leadership of the minister of health and welfare. The CECC introduced a total of 124 measures to stop the spread of the disease. It also coordinated works of a number of ministries like ministries of labour, transportation, economics, education and the environment to challenge the rising public health crisis. Additional measures were taken by the CECC like improved laboratory testing capacity, treatment of suspected cases in isolation words and increased the scope of its surveillance. Taiwan administration made a tired system for testing by involving 50 regional hospitals and 167 community hospitals and clinics.
Taiwan decided to ban the export of surgical masks with the effect on 24th January 2020 and increased domestic mask production to distribute more effectively. It was able to produce 16 million masks as a national mask team was set up and 92 extra production lines were started. As of April 2020, Taiwan has started donating masks to the US, Australia and Europe through its medical diplomacy.
Taiwan also used sophisticated and up-to-date technology. It integrated the national health insurance database with its immigration and customs database to create a big data analytics. This measure generated alerts during a medical visits based on travel history to help case identification. The government worked with telecom operators to use GPS tracking for those going through home quarantine. Heavy penalty was imposed on quarantine offenders.
Transparency of information is one of the main reasons for Taiwan’s victory in dealing with COVID-19. The government assimilated information to the citizens everyday as there have been regular press briefings. Majority of quarantines has been self-quarantines, and people’s voluntary self-protection has helped to contain the spread of the virus. Those affected are handled with care and emotional support by supplying food, regular health checks and other healthcare benefits.
The world media praised the effort by President Tsai Ing-wen as she was counted among the strong female leaders who are managing the crisis better than male leaders. President Tsai displayed one of “the first and fastest moves” around the world. Her quick actions revealed resilience and compassion.
Most importantly work is not negatively affected in the island. Schools, offices, restaurants and malls have remained open through this time period having minimum impact on the economy and social life. Heavy penalty is introduced for those failing to wear masks in public and 1.5 meters distance is maintained strictly among the customers in the commercial establishments.
Being a new and vibrant democracy, Taiwan displayed transparency and created a bond and trust between the government and public. Undoubtedly, Taiwan’s swift action saved millions and prevented thousands from getting infected. Taiwan constantly facing China’s aggression defiantly giving important lessons for India to tackle the deadly virus.
** The author is an Assistant Professor at the Royal Global University, Guwahati **