Taiwan case shows an authoritarian response is not the way to tackle coronavirus

During the spring of 2003, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronavirus spread throughout most of East Asia. Taiwan was hit hard by the SARS, with 73 citizens killed, 346 infectedand over 150,000 quarantined, with the painful memory of the epidemic lingering to this day. Nonetheless, plans were quickly drawn up to ensure the country’s preparedness for any future outbreak. Most importantly, in 2004, the government established the National Health Command Center (NHCC) to help coordinate the country’s response capacity and monitor any imminent public health threats, writes Dr. Harry Ho-Jen Tseng, Taiwanese representative to the EU and Belgium.

17 years later, we are seeing the results of such advanced preparation. As of April 2, Taiwan has registered 339 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 5 deaths far fewer than its neighbouring countries. There has been no community transmission, with over 85% of all cases imported from overseas.

What’s more, life in Taiwan has continued at a relatively normal pace, albeit with strict vigilance in the form of frequent disinfection, hand sanitization and temperature checks. Offices, schools, shops, bars and restaurants all remain open and society continues to operate much as it always has.

This increasingly distinguishes Taiwan among industrialised nations, and is made more remarkable when considering the island’s proximity to China. In 2019, more than 2.7 million Chinese tourists visited Taiwan, and up to 850,000 Taiwanese citizens live in China. Presumably, this high frequency of person-to-person contact between the two nations initially could make Taiwan one of the most at-risk nations.

On the other hand, Taiwan has also faced the added complication of exclusion from the WHO. This not only undermines the health right of Taiwan’s 23 million citizens, but poses a threat to the international community as Taiwanese experts are unable to attend WHO meetings, particularly in the context of fighting pandemics. As early as last December, Taiwan warned the WHO of possible human-to-human transmission of the virus – had Taiwan been a member at the time, it could have shared this crucial information with WHO member states. Ultimately, Taiwan can help, and if given the chance, Taiwan will help.

Faced with tackling the crisis alone, Taiwan nevertheless acted swiftly and its efforts has so far proven effectively. On December 31, as soon as the first reports of an unknown viral pneumonia began to trickle out of Wuhan, China, Taiwanese officials began to screen incoming flights from the region for individuals showing suspected symptoms. This was soon followed with steps to bar visitors from Wuhan, and subsequently from the rest of China throughout January.

In parallel, the government has taken a range of measures to mitigate the threat of any community transmission. Capitalising on the country’s technological prowess, Taiwan has leaned heavily on tools such as big data analysis to help track and control the spread of the virus. For instance, the national health insurance database has been integrated with immigration and customs systems, in turn, generating real-time alerts during a clinical visit based on travel history and health symptoms.

Taiwan’s actions have put to test the notion that an authoritarian response is what is needed facing a pandemic, that democracy is somehow a hindrance. On the contrary, it is the core values of freedom, democracy and transparency that have made Taiwan’s response such a success and it is in the spirit of these common values and ideals that Taiwan wishes to reach out to the rest of the world to share expertise and experience. To turn words into action, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen pledged on 1 April to donate 10 million protective face masks to countries hard-hit by the COVID-19 outbreak.

In Taiwan, there is a strict philosophy that politics must not override professionalism. Nowhere is this more important than in the area of international public health. As diseases heed no borders, international cooperation is ultimately vital when dealing with global pandemics.

We in Taiwan learned lessons from the SARS outbreak the hard way, now, we stand ready to share those experience with all like-mined countries across the world.

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EUToday Correspondents

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