On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) finally declared the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) a pandemic. Over the past several weeks, international media outlets have praised Taiwan’s low infection and death rates from the coronavirus and have suggested that the island’s experience offers many lessons for governments around the world that are struggling to combat COVID-19. As of March 23, Taiwan had a total of 195 confirmed infection cases and 2 deaths, with many of the most recent cases from Taiwanese citizens who contracted the virus while traveling abroad. Foreign media have lauded the Taiwanese government’s decisive, early epidemic control measures and the data integration and coordination of government agencies, hospitals, and medical facilities on the coronavirus, among other factors. Taiwan’s coronavirus response has placed the island in a positive international spotlight and has also boosted the popularity of President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration as well as further strengthened Taiwanese identity.
As countries around the world continue to grapple with rapidly growing infection rates— particularly in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East—international media have focused on the success stories in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, especially given their relatively low infection and death rates despite their close links to China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore learned from their bitter experience with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003, which also originated in China. Unlike many other countries, all three took initial reports of the novel coronavirus very seriously and acted accordingly.
Among the critical actions taken by the Taiwanese government was the decision to ban flights from China far earlier than other countries. Taiwan, which saw 2.7 million Chinese visitors to the island in 2019, was a potential holiday destination for large groups of Chinese tourists during the Lunar New Year break. However, on January 26, five days after it confirmed its first COVID-19 case, Taiwan banned flights from Wuhan. Three weeks later, Taiwan banned all flights from China except from Beijing, Shanghai, Xiamen, and Chengdu. In early February, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC, 大陸委員會) announced the suspension of the “three links” (三通) providing maritime transportation across the Taiwan Strait as a pre-emptive measure to contain the viral outbreak from China.
Meanwhile, Taiwan’s Asian neighbors, in particular Japan and South Korea, decided against banning flights from China after news of the coronavirus emerged. This was possibly due to diplomatic considerations related to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) planned visits to both countries in the spring of 2020. Moreover, Japan and South Korea’s tourism economies are heavily reliant on Chinese tourists, which may have been another deterrent. On February 4, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration enacted a limited ban on foreigners who had traveled to Hubei province in the past two weeks. On March 5, Japan imposed a 14-day quarantine on all visitors from China and South Korea to government-designated sites. Both Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Moon have weathered domestic political criticism for their lax responses on the coronavirus outbreak, including their early decision against imposing a travel ban on Chinese visitors. Moon created confusion when he said on February 13 that the coronavirus had been contained in South Korea and would “disappear before long.” Subsequently, South Korea has the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Asia outside of China, with 8,961 infections and 111 deaths as of March 23. Japan, meanwhile, has 1,046 infection cases and 49 deaths, as of March 22.
Without waiting for cues from China or the WHO, Taiwanese authorities began checking passengers from Wuhan for symptoms in December. In early January, Taiwan’s National Health Command Center (NHCC, 國家衛生指揮中心), which was established after the SARS outbreak, set up the island’s new Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC, 中央流行疫情指揮中心). The CECC has been involved in allocating government funds for surgical mask production. The CECC also announced a ban on international cruise ships from Taiwan’s ports starting on February 6 in response to the Diamond Princess cruise ship that was quarantined in Yokohama, Japan, that ultimately spread the coronavirus to more than 700 passengers and resulted in at least 8 deaths. The Taiwanese government also proactively started working with local hospitals to identify infected people, trace their contacts, and isolate them, prior to confirming its first case on January 21.
Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC, 衛生福利部疾病管制署) has been at the forefront of national efforts by providing daily updates and news conferences on new coronavirus infection cases and details on potential exposure to the new infections, in addition to announcing other public health measures. Taiwan’s Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung (陳時中), who has earned the affectionate nickname “Minister A-Chung” (阿中部長) and is widely popular in Taiwan, has become the public face of the Taiwanese government in informing residents on the coronavirus situation and urging them to avoid foreign travel to high-risk regions. At a news conference on March 16, following a two-day increase of 14 new coronavirus cases from Taiwanese citizens returning from the Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Europe, an exasperated Minister Chen urged the public to refrain from traveling to “very dangerous” Level 3 countries that are experiencing high levels of coronavirus infections and deaths. Chen warned that Taiwanese citizens will pay a price for not following these instructions, such as making violators pay for doctors’ visits related to the coronavirus and publicly disclosing the names of people who ignored directives and are confirmed to carry COVID-19. Furthermore, those who violate relevant quarantine regulations can be fined from NTD $100,000 to NTD $1 million (roughly USD $3,310 to $33,100) according to the law.
During a time of national crisis, a public health issue such as the COVID-19 is a test of government leadership and efficiency as well as public health capacities. Any government’s performance on coronavirus will expose successes and failures in public service and highlight the level of public trust in political leaders. As for Taiwan, the government’s management of the coronavirus outbreak has resulted in high marks for President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) administration. According to a poll released by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation (台灣民意教育基金會, TPOF) on February 24, Tsai’s approval rating stood at 68.4 percent, the second-highest since she became president in 2016, while public confidence in the Taiwan government’s ability to manage the coronavirus has soared to 86 percent. The poll also found that support for Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) reached a high of 41 percent, compared to the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), which experienced a drop in support to 12.5 percent. Particularly when compared to the number of infections and deaths in neighboring countries and around the world, Taiwan is doing relatively well.
Taipei’s strong performance during the COVID-19 crisis has also translated into further solidification of Taiwanese identity. The poll by the TPOF also found that 83.2 percent of Taiwanese citizens consider themselves Taiwanese, reaching a historic high. In addition, 5.3 percent identify as Chinese, while 6.7 percent view themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese. Indeed, international praise for Taiwan’s handling of the situation has become a source of pride for the island. Such sentiments have also been echoed by President Tsai, who said many countries see Taiwan as a model for epidemic containment.
Second Stage of Coronavirus
As Taiwan enters the second stage of the coronavirus crisis, Taipei is taking additional steps to help contain the virus, including collaborating with domestic manufacturers and technology developers. The Taiwanese government said on March 16 that it has formed “a national team,” utilizing domestic suppliers such as Makalot Industrial to mass produce protective and isolation gowns instead of relying on imports from China and the United States. In addition, Taiwan is working on letting the public order surgical masks online instead of having to physically purchase them at local pharmacies. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s online platform created by Digital Minister without Portfolio Audrey Tang (唐鳳) contains real-time interactive maps and hundreds of apps that track the supplies of face masks at drug stores and has been praised by the United States and Japan. Japanese lawmaker Ishibashi Michihiro mentioned Taiwan’s apps during a meeting with other lawmakers and asked whether Tokyo could also utilize information technology to send urgent information to citizens.
As the coronavirus has become a global pandemic and nations around the world are scrambling to contain the outbreak, Taiwan wants to offer its best practices to the rest of the world, particularly the most hard-hit areas. With the United States currently reporting the second-largest number of coronavirus cases outside of China, Washington and Taipei are working towards jointly developing coronavirus tests, treatments, and vaccines, as well as exchanging medical supplies and equipment. Taiwan promised to donate 100,000 surgical masks per week to the United States. The American Institute in Taiwan said it would “enhance consultation and cooperation with the MOHW (Ministry of Health and Welfare) to combat the Wuhan coronavirus.” Furthermore, Taiwanese researchers at Academia Sinica recently discussed potential collaboration with European Union officials to combat COVID-19. Indeed, the novel coronavirus has become a new arena for Taiwan to strengthen its cooperation with other countries and continue to boost its soft power.
The main point: Taiwan has earned international praise over its handling of the coronavirus outbreak, which has domestic and foreign policy implications, including boosting the popularity of Tsai Ing-wen’s administration, strengthening Taiwanese identity, and providing new opportunities for international collaboration.