Since the first outbreak of coronavirus, Taiwan has been seen as an unlikely source of stability. Over 400,000 Taiwanese live and work on the Chinese mainland and, due to diplomatic tensions with Beijing, Taiwan is not a member of the World Health Organisation. Despite this, as infections began to rise in Japan and then exploded in South Korea, Taiwan’s daily increase of cases never surpassed five.
The Taiwanese government’s robust response to illness, which has paralysed so many other parts of the world, garnered much international praise. But a fresh spike in cases has put Taiwan on the back foot.
On Sunday, six new infections were confirmed, the highest number in a single day to date. On Monday, this was surpassed with eight new cases; and again on Tuesday, with ten new infections. On Wednesday, there were 23 new cases, taking the number of new infections to beyond 100, doubling the total within a week.
Many of the newly infected were those who had recently returned from Europe, Turkey and Egypt. But of these new cases, the most concerning was the diagnosis of a woman in her twenties with no recent travel history, leading many to worry about community transmission.
Since reports of a new virus in Wuhan first emerged in the closing days of 2019, the thinking behind the Taiwanese government's approach has remained uniform: take stringent measures that heighten alertness and public consciousness while simultaneously avoiding panic.
Taiwan's first steps were swift and comprehensive. As early as 24 January, the export of surgical masks was banned to prevent domestic shortages while limits were imposed on the number of surgical masks that could be bought. Across the country, anyone entering a public building – shopping centre, museum, gym, even nightclub – must have their body temperature checked, and their hands sprayed with disinfectant. If a person’s body temperature exceeds 37.5 degrees, they are stopped and told to visit a doctor.
The government also imposed restrictions on travellers from badly-affected regions. The earliest and most significant of those was implemented on 6 February when all foreigners who had visited China, Hong Kong and Macau within the past 14 days were banned from entering Taiwan.
The speed with which these measures were enacted was not without reason. Taiwan’s successful control of the disease in the early stages is intrinsically related to its experience during the 2003 Sars epidemic, which left a deep impression on Taiwan’s public consciousness. During that epidemic, 346 were infected and 73 people died, a mortality rate of 21 per cent.
Taiwan learned hard lessons from Sars. However, one of the government organs it spawned, the Central Epidemic Command centre, has become pivotal to the government’s strategy. The CECC holds a daily press conference, sometimes more than one a day, in which officials brief the public on each new case, its suspected origin, and the number of people that the newly diagnosed have been in contact with.
At these press conferences, the details of each new case – and crucially the potential impact on others – is painstakingly explained. If a series of cases belong to the same family or are from the same group of returning tourists, this information is all clearly outlined in each press conference. This has an important corollary effect on public consciousness around the disease: there is a clear logic to the virus’s spread.
So the British government’s supposed strategy of ‘herd immunity’ has sparked particular debate. The Taiwanese media has even applied a piece of popular slang to the approach: 佛系 or ‘fo xi’. Usually used to describe a person, ‘fo xi’ means something along the lines of, ‘ah well, whatever happens will happen, there’s not much we can do about it’.
Indeed, many Taiwanese looked on aghast as Sir Patrick Vallace said up to 60 per cent of the British population could become infected with Covid-19. On 17 March, in a discussion on the British strategy, Zhao Shaokang, host of The Situation Room – a daily political talk show somewhere between Question Time and Newsnight – described the approach as ‘taken from Darwinism’.
There is undoubtedly a latent dissatisfaction with European authorities, and what some Taiwanese perceive as their nonchalance in responding to the crisis. Many blame European inaction, and Britain in particular, for the wave of new infections.
In response to the recent rise in cases, Taiwanese authorities have doubled down on restrictive measures. Compulsory retrospective monitoring of all those that travelled to Taiwan from Europe, Dubai, Egypt and Turkey between the 5 and 14 March has been enforced and is expected to affect up to 16,000 people. The government is offering those that comply with quarantine a daily stipend of 1,000 Taiwanese dollars (£28.50) while those that break quarantine face a fine of between 1 and 2 million dollars (£28,500-£57,000). Finally, from midnight on Wednesday, all foreigners (except those with resident permits) were banned from entering Taiwan.
In a speech delivered today, president Tsai Ing-wen said that while the effort of her government had 'gained the approval of the international community' Taiwan had once more reached a 'critical moment' in curbing the spread of the virus. The next few days will be decisive in determining whether the Taiwanese government’s glowing record will be tarnished by infections imported from abroad.