COVID-19 diary: How Taiwan’s coronavirus response is exemplary – experiences of an Indian researcher in Taipei

Due to political tensions with China, Taiwan’s progress in tackling the coronavirus outbreak does not get much media mention. Here are insider perspectives on Taiwan’s successful approach, and personal takes on coping with the crisis.

7th Apr 2020
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I grew up in Karnataka, studied marine sciences in Goa, and moved to East Asia as a researcher in coral reefs. The response here in Taiwan to the COVID-19 crisis has been outstanding, and in that regard I consider myself very lucky to be here, I feel it is the safest place.


7

Early years

I was born in Hassan district in Karnataka and grew up in Hassan and Hubli until my pre-university education. I then completed my undergraduate and master’s studies from Goa University in 1998. I worked as a research assistant at the National Institute of Oceanography until 2002, and then moved to East Asia. As for my family, my parents are in Bengaluru, as are most of our relatives; my brother is in Goa.


I have lived for the past 17 years of my life in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, which are all largely mono-cultural societies. Unlike in India, things are very smooth in these countries, and life here is extremely different from what I experienced growing up in India. We, in India, are used to delays in daily routines, service of government agencies, people not respecting time, and so on. It is a ‘survival of the fittest’ culture.


When I landed in Japan in 2003, I soon realised that everything is organised and smooth. There is no need to worry about any delays or about things not getting done. As a result of my exposure to Japanese culture and way of life, I am more into the ikigai way of life.


Ikigai is a complex term to explain, but generally means “a reason for being”. It is having a direction or purpose in life, which makes one’s life worthwhile. Individuals take spontaneous and willing actions in this direction, giving them satisfaction and a sense of meaning to life.


It is kind of a reflection of one’s inner self and helps maintain health and long life. Learning to speak and read Japanese quickly also helped me to better understand the cultural aspects and zen of Japanese way of living.


My research is on how global climate change and temperature affect the behaviour of corals in different environments. I started this research in Lakshadweep in 2000, and my work has taken me to several countries in East and South-East Asia: Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Hong Kong, and of course Taiwan, which is my present home.


I arrived in Taiwan in 2008 to continue my research and joined Academia Sinica in Taipei as a postdoctoral researcher. Academia Sinica is the premier research institute in Taiwan with over 33 institutes or centres of various disciplines in natural and social sciences. It is a large campus with professors, students, and postdoctoral researchers and attracts members from Taiwan and many countries mainly from South-East and South Asia.


Since the institute caters to many foreigners, it is easy to get by with English. However, I like learning languages, and hence I am learning to speak, read, and write in Chinese. After three years of learning, I am still at the intermediate level. Learning Chinese has been a challenge since it is a very complicated and tonal language.

 

5

Life in Taiwan

Taiwan is a beautiful, sweet potato-shaped island nation in the West Pacific. People here are capitalistic, competitive, and extremely proud of both their country and themselves. It is justified due to their consistent tussle with their big neighbour China. The crux of the problem is due to China’s designation of Taiwan as a part of greater China with non-existence of “Taiwan” but instead “Chinese Taipei” as one of the provinces.

 

Taiwan is constantly facing political harassment by China. Not being recognised as a country by the United Nations, it is on its own and tries to win or make friends with as many nations as possible to support its existence as a nation.


Recently, due to constant Chinese pressure, many countries in the South Pacific, Africa, and South America have rescinded their support by closing the Taiwan embassy (the politically correct term it is known as ‘Taiwan Economic and Cultural Centre’) in their nation.





Due to this problem, Taiwan started the ‘south-bound policy’ two years ago, through which it looks towards its southern border for cooperation. As part of this policy, ties between Taiwan and India have become stronger, and there is active exchange in technology and education with more Indians coming to work and study in Taiwan.


At the same time, India always has been supportive of Taiwan and its presence in this region and has not given in to the pressures from China about how it should treat Taiwan. And why not – Taiwan has one of the highest GDP rankings, with a high quality of life, and excellent technological resources.


Indians in Taiwan make up one of the largest expat communities, with students, postdoctoral researchers, people working in restaurant business, software industries, and families. We have an ‘Indians in Taiwan’ Facebook group, where everyone can interact, get suggestions, and get help when in trouble. I have not heard of any Indian getting into trouble due to the virus pandemic or being infected.

COVID-19 outbreak

I heard for the first time about the coronavirus through news and social media. Since people in Taiwan, as well as political leaders, are very active online, news spreads very fast. Furthermore, we in Taiwan are not far from Wuhan, Korea, and Japan – the epicentre and initially infected locations, respectively

 

My reaction was actually nothing. I am used to constant earthquake and typhoon alerts, and have kind of become used to it. I feel so safe in Taiwan that even if something bad is happening, I know that the central government and local authorities are working in full gear to protect its residents.


The only time I was anxious was when the cruise ship Dream Princess was docked at northern Taiwan. My reaction now, in April, hasn’t changed much. I still feel very lucky to be in one of the safest places with an excellent healthcare system.

 

6

Taiwan’s response

Taiwan is like an ignored child among the nations of the world. It does not get the necessary support form organisations like the World Health Organisation due to pressure from China. Hence, it has to learn and do everything the hard way.


Thanks to its phased approach, unlike other countries, there was no shock reaction to the pandemic. Because Taiwan tackled it step-by-step, it was way ahead of any other nation, in a manner that gave its people enough time to face it without panic.


Taiwan still remembers the time when the SARS epidemic had stuck this region in 2003, and hence started very early to take care of itself. Coincidentally, I was travelling to Japan from Mumbai through Thailand when the SARS epidemic was happening.


In January 2020, the Taiwan Centre of Disease Control (CDC) started monitoring all individuals who had travelled to Wuhan in the past 14 days and those who showed signs of fever or upper respiratory tract infections, and quarantined those who tested positive.


The nation also activated the Central Epidemic Command Centre (CECC), which was established after the SARS epidemic, and mobilised government funds and military personnel to facilitate face mask production. At the beginning of February 2020, mask rationing system was started.





Anyone with a National Health Insurance card, Alien Resident Certificate and valid entry permits could buy masks at convenience stores and local pharmacies. People with identity cards ending in odd numbers were able to buy masks on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; those with even-numbers on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays; and anyone could buy masks on Sundays.


The information about nearby pharmacies (based on GPS) where one can purchase masks was made available through a mobile app, which also had information about the availability of masks. By March 12, masks were available for pre-order online. In April, the mask rationing system was revised so that adults could buy nine masks every two weeks.

 

Now, I explain this because I think encouraging citizens to use masks in public places as a pre-emptive and proactive measure helped manage the spread as well as the occurrence of new infections. As of April, Taiwan has started donating masks to other countries as people world over are realising how important wearing a mask can be.


Taiwanese travel a lot and many foreign tourists also visit Taiwan. By the end of January, when things started getting worse and the world realised that it is facing a possible pandemic, Taiwanese who were travelling abroad and visitors to Taiwan had become a possible and uncontrollable threat on their return.


Hence, Taiwan issued travel bans to and from very early into the pandemic situation.


Moreover, the government issued a new advisory: anyone landing in Taiwan (whether citizens or not) and exposed to the infection or entering from parts of the world exposed to the pandemic needed to self-quarantine for 14 days. To make it more comprehensive, CECC and CDC combined the immigration and customs database with the national health database to monitor people with potential infection.


The success of Taiwan so far is due to active contact tracing, quarantine, and testing. Those who did not follow the rules of quarantine were fined 1 million NTD (about $30,000). At the same time, as an incentive, the government decided to pay 1,000 NTD per day, (about $450 for 14 days) for those undergoing quarantine.


Finally, in March, Taiwan banned travellers from entering Taiwan. Those travellers and people with temporary visas already in Taiwan had their visas extended. Taiwanese citizens were advised not to travel overseas, unless really necessary.


People are alert, but I don’t see any panic buying of daily stuff here (there was initially some for tissue papers and food products, but that stopped). No one is hoarding things, and convenience stores and supermarkets are well-stocked.

 

4

Advantage Taiwan

Being in Taiwan at this point of time definitely qualifies as a bright moment, as compared to other countries. I feel sad to see how some countries are dealing with this pandemic and maybe not taking enough measures or did not start dealing with it in time.


It makes me angry that even when there was news of the virus being a potential pandemic, people were still travelling – some of whom brought the infection to their country.


It is truly inspiring how a small nation like Taiwan is dealing with the pandemic very effectively. There is no panic or any rule-breaking incidences. If you deal with a problem systematically, preemptively and calmly, it is not a problem anymore.


I consider myself very lucky to be in Taiwan, I feel it is the safest place. At the same time, I feel some sadness and even anger because of what I see happening in other countries like Italy, the US, Australia, and even India. Things are bleak even in many big and mature economies, who boast of top healthcare systems and leading research facilities. As a result of bad leadership and/or bad and misguided decisions, things are either worse or could become worse.

Guarding against complacency

Taiwan’s success in dealing with the virus pandemic is largely due to transparency of information, starting from December 31, 2019. The government has been informing citizens every day about the infection and its development. There have been constant press conferences and recommendations have been given to people to choose and adopt voluntarily.


Hence, we in Taiwan have been able to make our own informed and balanced decisions. The type of quarantines has mostly been self-quarantines, and people’s voluntary self-protection has helped suppress the spread of the virus. However, people in Taiwan should not become complacent.


I still see instances of people travelling, gathering for an event, not wearing masks, or escaping from quarantine. We can control and get over the pandemic only if and when every citizen follows preventive measures and adhere to good hygiene practices. Complacency can lead to outright breakout of the infection, which will be a terrible thing after all the preemptive measures that Taiwan has been working on.

 

3

Work, life, and community

Honestly, work is not adversely affected in Taiwan. All schools and some universities did close initially to take preventive measures but none of the businesses or companies were closed, and continue to work as usual.


Those who become sick with flu or infection are asked to self-quarantine for two weeks and if tested positive for coronavirus, are medically quarantined. Others need to follow the protocol – don’t gather in groups, wash hands frequently, maintain distance, and wear a mask.


People help each other by following the rules and advisory issued by the local authorities. If everyone takes responsibility and behaves accordingly, it becomes easier to contain an epidemic or pandemic.


Here, everyone religiously follows rules and advisory made by the government and local authorities. For example, from April 1, masks are compulsory on all public transport (long distance trains and buses, it was optional until now), and optional in local transport.




However, one can see almost everyone with masks everywhere. And on April 5, it was announced that people failing to wear a mask in public transport system everywhere in Taiwan will be fined to the tune of 15,000 NTD (about $450).


Also, from April 1, every business, which cannot make sure to maintain a distance of 1.5 metres between customers, needs to close down until further notice. And there is no protest or questions raised by any business – everyone is trying to follow the rules.


Cafes, supermarkets, and restaurants have already made sure to follow the 1.5 metre rule, and those who cannot are switching to take out service. More establishments are relying on services like Uber Eats and ecommerce to get their products to people.

 

People in Taiwan are not used to gather together as a community and help one another or help those in trouble. Rather, everyone takes care of themselves, their immediate family, and follows all the advisory issued by the government, and trust the government to make sure that everyone is taken care of. 


This does not mean that there are no volunteer groups helping people or looking after the needs of citizens. I don’t know about this because everything is in Chinese and is often advertised through outlets that I may not be aware of.


We are now into the fourth month of this virus situation, and in Taiwan life carries on. I am able to go to work as usual, and people are not going into panic mode.
2

Healthy habits

My daily routine has not changed. Except for one week in March, when members of the laboratory where I work decided to work from home, I go to office daily and work as usual. It is very easy to stay healthy in a country where people are active and many around you are exercising.


As usual, I run thrice a week and instead of eating out, I cook my food as much as possible. I read books to keep good mental health. But the main thing that keeps me sane is knowing that if I follow and do as advised by the authorities, I will be safe. 


My worries are for my family in India. Everyone is under lockdown, and sometimes people cannot tolerate this situation of staying at home for weeks or months.

Reinvention

We are facing a pandemic. However, it is not necessary that we make it worse. We need to follow simple basic rules. Wear a mask when in public, wash hands repeatedly with soap (always soap), and when in a public space, use 75 percent alcohol as a disinfectant.

 

I know it is difficult for people to spend time at home during the lockdown. But this is the best chance anyone can get to discover themselves. It is very difficult to realise and discover our potential in chaos when surrounded by people.


But when in isolation, it is very easy to know ourselves and our true potential. There are so many things one can do (which otherwise is not possible due to the lifestyle we tend to have). For example, take yourself back in history by immersing in books on history, learn about someone’s life through biographies, learn something new through fiction books, learn a language, immerse yourself in craft and art, and so on. The important thing is to not panic and think this through in a logical way.


I visit my family in Bengaluru once in two years, and I had planned to go to India in August this year. I don’t know if I can do that given the present situation, but I am still hoping that I can make that trip and meet my parents, my grandparents, and everyone else in the family.


(Photos courtesy author, Joseph Gorka, and David W S Lin)

(Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta)

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