Coronavirus: The Curious Case of Taiwan
Dr Teshu Singh, Research Fellow, VIF

With a population of 23 million, Taiwan has systematically managed the pandemic COVID-19. Despite strain relations, there is a lot of interaction between China and Taiwan. Around 850,000 Taiwanese stays in China, 400,000 Taiwanese work there and 2.7 million visitors from China visit Taiwan every year. In 2019, the trade between both side grew by 0.8 per cent year on year to USD 244.35 billion. China is the largest trading partner of Taiwan and accounts for 30 per cent of its total trade. Given the level of interaction between both sides, Taiwan should have been seriously affected by the coronavirus. On the contrary, as on 30 March 2020, the number of affected case is 298 with only 2 deaths. As compared to the global spread of the virus the number is minimal. There has been a sudden rise in infection from 252 to 298 in the last one week. The rise in the number of new cases were imported from abroad especially in those people who returned to Taiwan after 14 March.1

Steps taken by the Taiwanese Government

Taiwan put the right people and institution in place to deal with the growing threat of the COVID-19. On 20 January 2020 Tsai Ing-wen activated the Central Epidemic Command Centre (CECC) and put the Minister of Health, Chen Shih-chung, in charge. 2 As a follow-up to the SARS epidemic of 2003, in 2004 itself the CECC was set up. In normal circumstance, it is usually a dormant organisation but at the time of emergency, it is obliged to work on a war-footing scale. The Vice-President of Taiwan, Chen Chien-jen, himself is an epidemiologist and former Health Minister. He has been part of the policymaking process of COVID-19. As head of the health authority in 2003, he was considered one of the champions of the SARS incident.

In the last few decades, Taiwan has also invested heavily in its biomedical research capacity. Research teams have been working to mass-produce a rapid diagnostic test for COIVD-19. Notably, Taiwan’s health care system is quite efficient. In 1995, a compulsory single-payer system to provide comprehensive medical service to all legal residents was introduced in Taiwan. The National Health Insurance Administration under the Ministry of Health and Welfare (NHIA)3 is ranked the world’s best health care provider.4 In 2019, according to the CEOWORLD magazine Health Care Index, out of 89 countries, Taiwan has been rated the best health care system in the world.5

On 31 December, China informed the World Health organization about unknown pneumonia. Subsequently, Taiwan’s Centre for Disease Control ordered an inspection of passengers coming from Wuhan. Taiwan even asked for permission to send a team of doctors to China to find out more about the disease.6 Drawing expertise from its experience Taiwan informed the WHO about the risk of human-to-human transmission. But the instructions were not circulated globally.

Unlike China, Taiwan took altogether a different approach to deal with the COVID-19. They took a systematic approach, as soon as they got the information about the mysterious surge of pneumonia cases.Taiwan took prompt precautions; it started with inspecting and screening passengers from Wuhan.7 When the first imported case was identified in Taiwan on 21 January, they issued guidelines to suspend flight between Taipei and Wuhan.8 From 10th February 2020 onwards people transiting through China, Hong Kong and Macau entering Taiwan had to undergo home quarantine for 14 days.9 Predominantly, Taiwan followed home quarantine and introduced penalties upto US$ 33,200 for breaking these rules. All the mass events were deferred or cancelled.

Taiwan systematically used big data and technology to fight the virus. In one day, the Taiwanese government was able to combine data from NHIA and Immigration agency to identify patient’s travel history of the past 14 days. Also, the data was extracted from the household registration systems and foreigner entry cards, and people at high risk were identified, ordered to self-quarantine and were monitored through their mobile. Alternatively, passengers who had low-risk could simply scan a QR code and complete their immigration process. By 18 February 2020, the Taiwanese government provided all hospitals, clinics and pharmacies access to patients travel history. The Digital Minister of Taiwan, Audrey Tang used Artificial Intelligence (AI) to get data and create real-time digital updates to alert citizens risky areas to avoid and a live map of local supplies of face masks.10 Taiwan also created a mobile phone-based “electronic fence” that used location-tracking to ensure people are under quarantine stay in their home.

Expecting a high demand for masks, the Taiwanese government started rationing the masks, since late January. They invested USD 6.8 million in manufacturing masks and created 60 new mask production lines. This policy has also been copied and followed in other countries like South Korea and France.

Social Media also played an important role, Taiwanese television and radio broadcast announcements on the spread of the virus, the importance of washing hands and wearing masks.

The COVID-19 is to bound affect the global economy and the national economies as well. To reduce the effect on Taiwan’s Economy, they adopted measures to maintain an economic momentum, stimulate industry, and ensure financial stability. On 19 March 2020, Tsai Ing-wen announced NT$ 100 billion stimulus project that includes NT$ 60 billion disease prevention special budget and NT$ 40 billion to be shifted to contingency measures. These two funds can be directed towards relief and economic stimulus program. In her speech, she indicated expanding expenditure as the needs arise.11 Taiwan's central bank has also cut interest rates on new loans and reduced its growth projections. This was done keeping in mind the global recession that is becoming inevitable in the wake of COVID-19.12

Taiwan’s Position in the World Health Organistaion (WHO)

Despite these timely, systematic and novel efforts to curtail the effect of the virus it may be noted that Taiwan is not a member of the WHO. China has created obstacles for Taiwan to join the WHO. Nevertheless, Taiwan’s handling of the COVID-19 illustrates that they are cable of doing so even with out the WHO help. It is the larger international community that will be at loss. Taiwan’s initial understanding of the threat of the coronavirus could have given others warning. Taiwan’s inability to disseminate its findings has taken a toll on human lives.13

Taiwan was granted observer status in the World Health Assembly (WHA) from 2009 onwards but that also ended under the pressure from China. Since 2017, Taiwan has been banned from attending the annual WHA. Amidst the current COVID-19 outbreak, Taiwan has been excluded from WHO emergency meetings on the coronavirus. On 12 February 2020, Taiwanese experts were allowed to participate online in a WHO forum in their professional capacities. China’s Foreign Ministry said that Taiwan could participate because they had granted permission. On the contrary, Taipei denied the fact and stated that they could participate because of there own efforts and it was the result of direct negotiation with the WHO.14

In March 2020, the US Senate passed the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act. It is aimed at supporting Taiwan’s international presence. Once the Act receives the consent from the president, thereafter the US should advocate for Taiwan’s membership in all international organisations in which statehood is not required. Similarly, as a part of India’s Act East Policy and being a member of the WHO,India should also support Taiwan’s entry in the WHO.

References
  1. https://www.taipeitimes.com/News/front/archives/2020/03/30/2003733638
  2. https://www.economist.com/asia/2020/03/26/let-taiwan-into-the-world-health-organisation
  3. https://www.nhi.gov.tw/English/
  4. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2020/03/11/asia-pacific/science-health-asia-pacific/taiwan-coronavirus-covid-19/#.Xn4pWdNKiSM
  5. https://ceoworld.biz/2019/08/05/revealed-countries-with-the-best-health-care-systems-2019/
  6. https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/what-taiwan-can-teach-world-fighting-coronavirus-n1153826
  7. https://taiwantoday.tw/news.php?unit=2,6,10,15,18&post=168773
  8. https://www.cdc.gov.tw/En/Bulletin/Detail/xkpP27Q_PndYAZ9IjlHzew?typeid=158
  9. https://www.cdc.gov.tw/En/Bulletin/Detail/anBk8plyRojMJdRkMALTnw?typeid=158
  10. https://abcnews.go.com/Health/taiwan-sets-world-fight-coronavirus/story?id=69552462
  11. https://english.president.gov.tw/NEWS/5985
  12. https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2020/03/20/world/asia/20reuters-health-coronavirus-taiwan-cases.html
  13. https://www.economist.com/asia/2020/03/26/let-taiwan-into-the-world-health-organisation
  14. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/13/how-taiwan-is-containing-coronavirus-despite-diplomatic-isolation-by-china

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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