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Taiwan's calm response to pandemic shows us this is not the end of the world

Jamie Blake Knox in Taiwan


Through diligence and shared responsibility, daily life and the economy will gradually recover – and so will we, writes Jamie Blake Knox

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People wear masks at a metro station in Taipei, Taiwan (Chiang Ying-ying/AP)

People wear masks at a metro station in Taipei, Taiwan (Chiang Ying-ying/AP)

Dr Jamie Blake Knox is a writer and Assistant Professor of English at Mackay Medical College, Taiwan

Dr Jamie Blake Knox is a writer and Assistant Professor of English at Mackay Medical College, Taiwan

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People wear masks at a metro station in Taipei, Taiwan (Chiang Ying-ying/AP)

When I told my family and friends that I was returning to Taipei last month, it was greeted with a mixture of concern and disbelief.

I could understand their anxieties. Taiwan is just 81 miles off the coast of mainland China, where the coronavirus originated.

The island is less than half the size of Ireland, but has a population of 23 million, and close to half-a-million Taiwanese work on the mainland.

I was urged to quit my teaching post at Mackay Medical College outside Taipei, the island’s capital, and remain safe at home in Ireland.

But it wasn’t only my parents who believed that Taiwan was going to have a very high rate of infection. That concern was shared by the Taiwanese authorities.

The start of the academic term was delayed when the Government extended the Chinese Lunar New Year holidays. That meant that all universities, colleges and schools remained closed for an additional two weeks.

I must confess that I felt some apprehension when I boarded my plane at Dublin airport. Even the plentiful supplies of Barry’s Tea, Tayto and Jaffa cakes in my luggage were not enough to ease my anxiety. I was not used to wearing a mask and the one that I chose to wear on my 13-hour flight was a very large and uncomfortable monstrosity that made me resemble Bane from Batman.

That was drawn to my attention as I walked through Schipol airport in Amsterdam for my connecting flight, when a group of Spanish teenagers laughed and shouted “Batman” at me.

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Dr Jamie Blake Knox is a writer and Assistant Professor of English at Mackay Medical College, Taiwan

Dr Jamie Blake Knox is a writer and Assistant Professor of English at Mackay Medical College, Taiwan

Dr Jamie Blake Knox is a writer and Assistant Professor of English at Mackay Medical College, Taiwan

I was one of only a few people on the flight to Taipei wearing a mask, but it was clear when we touched down just how seriously the Taiwanese were taking the virus. We were asked to sign declarations that we had not travelled through mainland China; we were given hand sanitiser; and electronic scanners were used to take all our temperatures.

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Suddenly, my mask didn’t seem so ridiculous. Everyone I saw was wearing one, but I was struck by the lack of panic and calmness with which they were all reacting to the new situation.

After I arrived, I discussed the situation with friends and colleagues including Professor Jacob Yih-Jer Wu of Mackay Memorial Hospital in Taipei.

He believes that this reaction to a legacy of the SARS outbreak in Taiwan nearly seventeen years ago. "Although relatively small numbers of people died at that time, it was a major wake-up call for us” he told me, “we realised that we were not sufficiently prepared and needed to change everything about our approach."

In fact, as Professor Wu pointed out, COVID 19 is much more dangerous than SARS because it can be carried by people who were only showing mild symptoms or are asymptomatic and has proved able to stay in the human body for longer.

The year after the SARS outbreak, the Taiwan government established its National Health Command Centre (NHCC). As early as December 31st, 2019, Taiwanese officials tried warning the World Health Organization (WHO) of the threat posed by cases of pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan city. Sadly, the warning was not passed onto any of WHO’s members.

Taiwan also has one of the most developed and sophisticated technology sectors in the world, and Big Data has been used used to identify and guide the direction of the Government strategy towards coroanvirus.

Only Taiwanese nationals and foreigners with residency are currently allowed into Taiwan, and they must all undergo 14-day quarantine.

Those who break it face a $32,000 USD fine and the prospect of being publicly named and shamed.

The Chinese government finally imposed an extreme quarantine on the province of Wuhanon January 23rd, and that is only being eased up now.

However, they have also attempted to stifle any public discussion of the epidemic. At first, they tried to demonise whistle blowers like Doctor Li Wenliang.

It was only after his death from the virus that he was praised by the state media. The Chinese Government are now claiming to have passed the peak stage of infection, but most of the people I meet in Taiwain simply do not trust their claims.

In Taipei, life is already getting back to some semblance of normality. Shops, pubs, museums and restaurants are all open, but when I enter any of these my temperature is taken: if it is too high, I will not be allowed in, and my hands are also sprayed with disinfectant.

Schools, Colleges and Universities are open too, but strict protocols are enforced: if there are any cases of infection, the school or college is closed. It only reopens when a quarentine period of two weeks has safely passed.

Of course, the threat of the virus is always in the background. But, like everyone else, I have learned to adapt. There was a surreal moment a few weeks ago when I was able to meet up with some friends in a park and celebrate St Patrick’s day.

Meanwhile, back in Ireland I learned that the celebrations had been curtailed. Hiking in the mountains around Taipei and picnicking have become the most common form of dating as people tend to avoid going to cafes or the cinema. In my college, there are posters on display reminding over amorous couples against public displays of affection.

Most people wear masks - especially on public transport. There is no panic buying, and I can use my health card to pick up masks from a pharmacy, clinic or hospital. Whatever the limitations of masks, they do tend to affect your behaviour and make you less likely to touch your face. Masks are also viewed as a sign of civic awareness and respect for the rights of others.

At the time of writing, the number of confirmed cases in Taiwan stands at 376, while the number of deaths is just 5. This is a fraction of the latest figures from Ireland, both in real and proportionate terms.

There is often the assumption that, in order to effectively combat this pandemic, European states need to adopt authoritarian and draconian measures. Such restrictions will inevitably limit and compromise our civil liberties.

However, Taiwan has shown that - through transparency, the free flow of information and a sense of collective responsibility - a vibrant liberal democracy can counteract this virus without compromising the safety of its citizens or its liberal ideals and principles.

There are many lessons that we can draw from Taiwan’s response to this crisis. They have shown that, as bad as things may seem now, this is not the end of the world. Through diligence and shared responsibility, daily life and the economy will gradually recover – and so will we.

Dr Jamie Blake Knox is a writer and Assistant Professor of English at Mackay Medical College, Taiwan

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