By Dec Greaves
As a Research and Policy intern at the Taipei City Government, I have had the unique opportunity to see a state not recognised as its own country, pushed out into the wilderness by the WHO. Ignored or bundled into the same bracket as China, Taiwan is playing a leading role in the how to deal with a pandemic that has taken hold of the entire globe.
Working directly for the Deputy Spokesman to Taipei, Kuan-Ting Chen, Taiwan’s capital and home to 2.6 million people, I have worked on the government response and been astonished by what has been achieved, leaving me disappointed with the UK’s lacklustre and frankly careless response to an event that should have been prepared for with clear warnings.
Taiwan’s first official case of this unrelenting virus hit on the 21st of January. On February 17th they were the third country in Asia to report a death from the disease, but have only registered five deaths in total at the time of writing. The WHO ranked Taiwan as the second most vulnerable area to the virus, only Hong Kong was seen as being more under threat.
However, at the time of writing, only 69 cases have been confirmed on an island of 23 million people with its last 7 cases being brought in from airports coming in from countries around the globe. Taiwan has single-handedly shown the WHO and the world how to handle this pandemic and maintain everyday life whilst being a mere 81 miles from mainland China.
So, as Europe goes into lockdown and the UK government fumbles through its ‘4 phases’ of prevention, what can we learn from Taiwan?
First, culture. Taiwanese citizens and their government worked together, as a collective, to quickly combat the virus. Taiwan is still scarred from the 2003 SARS outbreak and knows first-hand what a pandemic can do. This is an issue for the UK as it has had very little major threats or issues from previous outbreaks, such as swine flu, so government response has been indifferent to say the least.
This could not be further from the truth when looking at Taiwan’s response. As the outbreak hit right over the lunar new year, when millions of people in Asia were travelling to celebrate with family and friends, Taiwan could have easily fallen victim to the virus. However, those travelling back from Wuhan directly to Taiwan were tested from as early as the 20th of January: before it was even confirmed the virus could be spread via human to human contact. They continued to lead the way, ignoring WHO advice and implemented travel restrictions from mainland China; something the WHO did not deem to be necessary at the time.
Secondly, the level of preparation and detail needed to maintain the level of control seen by Taiwan takes a lot of resources, time and thought. Three things the UK government has starved the NHS of over many years, leaving Britain vulnerable and currently renting 80,000 private beds at a cost of £2.3 million a day to taxpayers.
If you need an example on how stable, consistent, long-term investment into public health benefits society and the economy, you do not need to look further than Taiwan. Issues such as bed space is what I call a ‘first impact issue’. Taiwan by January 20th had a list of 124 ‘action items’ that touched on a range of issues and sectors a virus such as this may cause; from work policies to schools to analysis of individual hospital capabilities. As highlighted by Kuan-Ting Chen, Deputy Spokesman of Taipei City, the government are providing subsidies to affected various areas of business and bonuses to currently overworked sectors. Whilst in the UK, the government are abandoning businesses whilst stretching nurses, doctors and hospitals to breaking point.
Taiwan has modern solutions to combat the modern-day issues we are seeing arise with the pandemic; notably regarding mass immigration and the major movement of peoples across the globe. To combat this issue, which has been ravaging Europe, Taiwan unified its national health insurance database with its immigration and customs database to create big data for analytics. It allows the autonomous state to track civilians, see who has been near a dangerous area with high infection so they can track that individual. As Kuan-Ting rightly highlights, transparency is the most important factor in good governance.
As Taiwan continues to follow protocol and give clear instructions to its citizens, there is no fighting over toilet roll, there are no mask shortages and everyone that needs medical support gets it. In a time that is testing the values that underpin the notion of humanity, Taiwan is not only standing up to these tests but thriving.
The situation in the United Kingdom is going to get worse before it gets better. Here at Taipei we are sending our plans to our sister cities in the United Kingdom and across the globe. We need to come together and embrace a collective effort, squash individualism and greed where we see it, and protect those that are most vulnerable. Let’s do more than singing happy birthday twice, let’s help each other.